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The voters are furious -- but are they madder at government or big business? That question could define the next political era
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ILLUSTRATION BY DANNY HELLMAN

And this fall, with two rich former CEOs spending their personal wealth to win two of California's top elected offices and energy companies pushing a measure to roll back California's efforts to combat global warming, there could be great opportunity in a narrative targeting those at the top of our economic system.

 

THE TOP AND THE BOTTOM

Some observers say that whatever their shared feelings about corporate scams, conservatives and liberals in the state are just too far apart, and that there's little hope for any substantive agreement. "People are becoming more polarized," said consultant David Latterman, who often works for downtown candidates and interests. "I think we're beyond compromise."

Allen Hoffenblum, a Los Angeles-based Republican strategist, agreed. "The voter are all mad, but they're mad at different things. I just don't see where they come together."

But Hightower, who has spent a lifetime in politics as a journalist, elected official, author, and commentator, has a different analysis.

"As I've rambled through life," he wrote in a recent essay, "I've observed that the true political spectrum in our society does not range from right to left, but from top to bottom. This is how America's economic and political systems really shake out, with each of us located somewhere up or down that spectrum, mostly down.

"Right to left is political theory; top to bottom is the reality we actually experience in our lives every day — and the vast majority of Americans know that they're not even within shouting distance of the moneyed powers that rule from the top of both systems, whether those elites call themselves conservatives or liberals."

In an interview, he told us he sees a lot of hope in the fractured and potentially explosive political ethos. "There's all this anger," he said. "People don't know what to do. And I think the one focus that makes sense is the arrogance and abuse of corporate executives."

In fact, Hightower pointed out, the teabaggers didn't start out as part of the Republican machinery. "Wall Street and the bailouts sparked the tea bag explosion," he said. It wasn't until big right-wing outfits like the Koch brothers, who own oil and timber interests and fund conservative think tanks, started quietly funding tea party rallies that the anti-corporate, anti-imperial edge came off that particular populist uprising.

"At first, the teabaggers didn't even know where the money was coming from," Hightower said. "You can't be mad at the teabaggers; we should have been out there organizing them first."

There's plenty of evidence that anger at big business is growing rapidly — and rivals the distrust of big government that has defined so much of American politics in the past 30 years. The bailouts were "the first time in a long time that people have been slapped in the face by collusion between big business and its Washington puppets," Hightower noted.

Then there's the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. In January, a sharply divided court ruled 5-4 that corporations had the right to spend unlimited amounts of money supporting or opposing political candidates. Progressives were, of course, outraged — but conservatives were, too.

Polls show that more than 80 percent of Democrats think the decision should be overturned. So do 76 percent of Republicans. "This is a winner for our side," Hightower noted. "But our side's not doing anything about it."

Sure, President Obama denounced the ruling in his State of the Union speech and promised reform. But the bill the Democrats have offered in response does nothing to stop the flow of money; it would only increase disclosure requirements. And in response to furor from the National Rifle Association, it's been amended and is now so full of holes that it doesn't do much of anything.

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