Graphic by James Barnes

Graphic by James Barnes

In my very first post at FDL, almost exactly four(!) years ago, I wrote:

When [the mechanisms of accountability] are not working properly… the rule of law breaks down, impunity replaces accountability, and democracy becomes anarchy or tyranny….

At the time, I was focusing on the media, the electoral system and the judiciary – in my blissful naivete, I had not yet realized just how rotten and corrupt our legal and regulatory system had become.

Matt Taibbi’s anonymous Senate investigator cuts a little more directly to the point:

Everything’s fucked up, and nobody goes to jail. That’s your whole story right there. Hell, you don’t even have to write the rest of it. Just write that.

Taibbi then proceeds to describe in excruciating and sickening detail a multitude of instances where the SEC and DOJ ignored whistleblowers and either blew off or slow-walked cases of blatant corporate wrongdoing.  To this date, Bernie Madoff is still the only recent Wall Street criminal who has actually been imprisoned, and his role in the financial meltdown was minor at best.

But it’s not just Wall Street that acts with impunity.  How much time did Scooter Libby or Karl Rove serve for outing a covert CIA operative?  How much time did anyone in the Bush administration serve for turning the DOJ into an extension of the RNC?  How many corrupt congressmembers got put away after Jack Abramoff started to sing like a canary?  How many BP or Massey executives have faced prosecution for criminal, fatal negligence?  Where did confessed Medicare scammer Rick Scott end up – in prison, or the Florida governor’s mansion?

Impunity isn’t just about freedom from criminal prosecution, though.  Elected officials who screw over their constituents in favor of corporations or wealthy donors pay no price for their betrayal – they either get re-elected with the help of generous campaign donations and a few thousand attack ads by Chamber front groups, or they pass through the revolving door and collect a 7- or 8-figure salary from their friends in the private sector.  Right-wing pundits who defend war and corporate greed make a good living and never get fired no matter how misguided, dishonest, crazy or outright disgusting they are.

On the flip side, while rich and powerful criminals are treated like fine upstanding citizens, actual fine upstanding citizens are treated like criminals.  They can be wiretapped without a warrant, routinely get screwed out of their homes and their health care, and if the Republicans (and some Democrats) have their way, they’ll be screwed out of their pensions, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and their rights to bargain collectively, end a pregnancy, or serve openly in the military.

In short, we have a culture of impunity and wealth accumulation for the people at the top, and arbitrary punishment and deprivation for everyone else.  That sounds a lot more like a third-world dictatorship than the great and prosperous model of democracy we’re supposed to be.

American democracy has been reduced to a cargo cult.  We go through the rituals of a representative democracy, with elections and votes and parliamentary procedures, but they’re all empty because the high priests don’t understand their purpose or (more likely) repudiate it.  So instead of an actual democracy that represents the interests of its citizens, we get an unaccountable oligarchy that represents corporations and wealth at the expense of everyone else.

And, of course, our cargo cult democracy also comes with a cargo cult free market where the richest players aren’t allowed to lose, and a cargo cult legal system where they’re not allowed to face prosecution.

Impunity is the magic word for all of this.  Without any fear of consequences, people and corporations motivated by wealth and power will continue to pursue wealth and power with no concern for anything else, and this is exactly what’s happening.  Our government doesn’t care about unemployment, or poverty, or climate change, or education, or safety, or financial stability, or any of the other things that a functioning and responsive government would care about.  It cares only about corporate profits – how to maximize them, and how to benefit from them.  Our government wears the mask of democracy, but behind the mask is just a rotted, grinning skull.