President Johnson’s War on Poverty, like that other war in Vietnam, was failing badly when I was recruited as a VISTA volunteer in 1967.

Promises about ending poverty and racism had been made, expectations raised. Dr. King was assassinated, and the result was inner city protests and riots that would produce a white backlash and the election of Richard Nixon. Over the next 50 years, more empty promises were followed by more failure, more marches, protests, and riots, and more political exploitation by both parties.

I resigned from VISTA in the fall of 1968 during the presidential campaign with the belief that the War on Poverty was a massive failure of big government and the voter ignorance that perpetuates it. Creating bureaucracies that have a vested interest in buying the votes of certain constituency groups creates a cycle of massive waste, predictably bad outcomes, and perpetual funding. If simply throwing enough money at a problem would solve it, the country should have no problems at all. In fact, the opposite is true. Despite spending countless trillions of dollars, the number of national problems has multiplied over the past half century with Dems and Republicans adept only at placing band aids on them.

My VISTA experience provided direction that inspired a five-decade anti-establishment odyssey. While my political and media activism have been modest, what I’ve learned and incorporated into an evolutionary framework are promising. Now 73 years old, 1968 is not a distant memory and endless promises of hope and change and fringe conspiracy theories have multiplied.

President Trump is the most shameless liar in American politics but lying is what Washington does best. It certainly isn’t solving problems, preventing national decline or protecting our democracy. The framers of the constitution could not forsee political parties perpetuating pacifying myths and endless other false narratives while engaging in a destructive pattern of massive wasteful spending.

America is confronting eight core problems: climate change, the threat of nuclear war, racism, unrestrained Wall Street greed, big government, unsustainable debt, COVID, and the growth of authoritarianism. Managing these problems is a two-party system that combines the theatrics of professional wrestling with the success of a powerful special interest.

Ninety-nine percent of us experience the theatrics. Our two-party system is a dysfunctional duopoly. For the other 1 percent, their two-party system is a special interest with benefits that are unfairly making them richer. These pampered plutocrats clearly trust Dems and  Republicans to safeguard their wealth and power even as they fail everyone else.

American democracy is an appealing ideal but the nation is a plutocracy where money talks and dissent walks. This is evident in the following: (1) the key problems of big government, unsustainable debt, barely regulated Wall Street greed, and systemic racism; (2) the myths of meaningful political competition, an informed electorate, and American affluence; and (3) the trends of concentrating political, economic, and media power, growing wealth and income inequality, and rapidly diminishing prospects for systemic change.

To create genuine democracy that ends the two-party system’s role in perpetuating delusion, dysfunction, division, and decline, messaging must be relevant to Washington’s myths, trends, and key problems; an agenda must be a non-partisan and comprehensive collection of bold and diverse ideas; and a massive citizens’ lobby must be mobilized to create political will in Washington.

At the core of this democratic revival is the reality that big government can’t be made more efficient and effective and less corrupt; it can only be made smaller, more accountable and less dangerous.


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