On April 9, President Joe Biden released a $715 billion military budget, which is more than even former President Donald Trump’s proposed budget of $704 billion. Meanwhile, the Biden administration still hasn’t delivered concretely on plans to stop the war in Yemen. Despite praise for his first 100 days in office, are Biden’s primary loyalties to an oligarchic system that benefits the wealthy few by disproportionately extracting resources from its own citizens based on promises they wanted to hear?
David Swanson is co-founder and executive director of World BEYOND War and campaign coordinator for RootsAction. He is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and was awarded the 2018 Peace Prize by the U.S. Peace Memorial Foundation. In this interview, he discusses how the United States is a proudly and shamelessly corrupt oligarchy, reforming impeachment and how people can experience something bordering on democracy by engaging with their local governments.
Tom Bauer: Tell me a bit about World BEYOND War.
David Swanson: World BEYOND War was a group we started about seven years ago. A longtime peace activist named David Hartsough and I got a bunch of allies together, most of them from the United States, with the plan to create a global organization that would have a global board, an advisory board, speaker’s bureau, volunteers and chapter leaders, which is what it has become.
We wanted to create something that would be global and something that would go after the institution of war; not oppose this particular war so the forces are better prepared for a better war, or oppose this weapon that the Pentagon didn’t even want because it doesn’t even work in favor of other weapons that kill more innocent people more quickly. We wanted to go after the budget. We wanted to go after the institution of war because it’s actually worse than the wars. It kills far more people. When we say 3 percent of the U.S. military budget alone could end starvation on Earth, the point is to communicate to people that it’s the diversion of resources from where they’re needed that kills and injures and harms and renders homeless far more people than all the wars put together, up to this moment.
Would public assemblies enable us to vote to allocate funds differently, so the military has to stop harmfully diverting resources into its military budget?
I think straight democracy, public votes on issues, even given the current level of horribly broken communication systems, would be far superior to what we’ve got. Short of that, moving in some direction toward democracy, whether it’s more decisions by state and local governments, whether it’s creating a fourth branch of government that’s public assemblies, that either have decision-making power or some influence, or anything in that direction would be useful. Short of that, criminalizing bribery, radically reforming the communications system, radically reforming access to debates and ballots for candidates; other reforms including automatic registration and proportional voting, perhaps — certainly, ranked-choice voting. These are all things that move us in the direction of that distant impossible goal of the word that they bomb people for: “democracy.”
Right now in the United States — and this is a similar problem elsewhere, but in the United States in particular — it’s an oligarchy. And it’s proudly and shamelessly corrupt. The revolving door, profiteering from war and blood and destruction; it’s shameless, it’s open, it’s proud. And the influence is in the bribes, excuse me, the “contributions”; is in the lobbying; is in the job offers that are coming; is in the private corporations providing staff and resources, and the military providing staff and resources to Congress members; is in the corruption by foreign governments; is in the jobs held over people’s heads, the weapons manufactured in 85 different districts, so those 85 Congress members have jobs dependent on those instruments of death; is in the corruption of the media and what it takes to get access to the media, and what you can’t say without being shunned for the rest of your short career from the media. A lot of it is insidious. It’s what former President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned: It would saturate the culture and you wouldn’t see everywhere it was coming from. I’m talking about the military-industrial complex in particular, but it applies to many other corrupting influences. It’s a cultural as well as a systemic problem. It becomes so entrenched.
You mention Eisenhower saying it’s going to seep into everything. It seems like everybody’s trying to get by in a system designed to advantage oligarchs.
It’s a system which was intentionally, explicitly and shamelessly designed to be anti-democratic in many ways. The United States Senate was invented as a guard against democracy. The House would allow too much democracy, so you had to have the Senate. The Supreme Court, same thing. These were explicitly, intentionally anti-democratic measures. And of course, anti-enslaved human beings, anti-woman, with various reforms along the way that still need a great deal of reform.
How much reform do you think we need?
We need structural reforms, no question. We need a radically reformed media system, a radically reformed election system, a radically reformed structure of government; who’s in it and what powers do they have? Even the Biden team is now setting up a commission to figure out the reforms that will fix the Supreme Court. I’ve got some ideas that don’t need to await a commission on that one. I think the anti-democratic tradition, because of the structure that the government works in at this point, has seeped into our culture to the point where people don’t even recognize the prevalence of it. It’s hard to find a candidate for office in the United States for federal office who doesn’t swear that he or she ignores all polling and acts on the basis of principle. It’s explicitly anti-democratic. It hates democracy, and people cheer for it without quite thinking what they’re cheering for.
When you have people bragging that they cheat on their taxes, bragging that they want to bomb other countries to steal their oil and kill their women and children, and encouraging the same behavior; when you have the aggressive use of the so-called death penalty, of killing people to teach people not to kill people, it’s horribly destructive. You have a country that goes to war against several predominantly Muslim nations and treats those populations of men, women, children as vermin, and then you have this shock that there would be anti-Muslim bigotry and violence back in the United States.
You have the politicians talking about how much they hate China and you have people in the streets starting to attack anyone with Asian ancestry and yelling about how much they hate China. Historically, vicious racist hateful violence in the United States, the various periods of increase in Ku Klux Klan activities, a rebirth of the new Ku Klux Klan, etc., all come during and after big wars. And, of course, they help the training in racism and hatred; helps prepare people for the next wars.
We need structural reform but it feels like we’re being held hostage by oligarchs.
There are dozens of things I want that Biden has promised that he has the lost-the-Senate excuse on, right? The beloved Senate excuse, that the Republicans have the Senate; it’s gone, right? The things that they refused to give us that they promised and campaigned on? The $2,000 stimulus checks immediately, the $15 minimum wage, the Iran deal, the Cuba relations, ending the war on Yemen, the various steps on racial justice and criminal legal reform? There are dozens of issues, some of which I work on, some of which I don’t, but all of which that have had some good steps that have been promised and many more that I want. The notion that we’re powerless is self-fulfilling. We have a radically unfair, catastrophically bad, uphill anti-democratic struggle, but we’re not quite powerless. We’ve stopped two of the worst nominees for cabinet positions already, because they were too hideously awful. If we tell ourselves that we won’t be able to stop any of them, then we won’t.
In Canada, it feels like we only get to choose from a certain number of politicians to vote for, but it also feels like they’re all beholden. Is that freedom? Is that democracy? It feels like a shell game; no matter which one you pick they’re not really working for you.
Well, there’s no question it’s not democracy. It’s not even representative government. It’s not within miles of what it pretends to be…. In the past 150 years, you have had dozens of U.S. presidents just seizing all kinds of vast powers from the Congress and abusing them: getting the power of nuclear weapons and threatening nations around the globe over and over, radically increasing inequality and corruption, devastating the natural environment, neglecting those in need. And you’ve had two impeachments. One for lying about consensual oral sex. And the other? Obstructing a propaganda campaign about Russia and, part two, withholding deadly weapons from a Nazi-aligned government in Ukraine that was using them in an outrageous war.
Two outrageous impeachments, both acquitted, both found innocent, not a single penalty. Both impeached individuals come out of it more popular, more powerful than they went in. This is what people think of impeachment, right? But this is just scratching the surface of what’s actually happened, much less what could happen. You’ve had dozens of impeachment campaigns. You’ve had 20 people impeached, only three of them presidents, most of them, or 12 of them, found guilty or removed from office. And dozens more impeachment campaigns that have forced the desired outcomes, or something close to it, before getting to impeachment. Why did Richard Nixon jump on the helicopter? Because he was about to be impeached. Why did Harry Truman lose the power to seize factories? Because he was about to be impeached, right?
Unless we’re going to throw out the whole system, … unless we’re starting from scratch, if we’re going to preserve anything that exists in the current U.S. system, restore impeachment. Even four years late, with a legitimate ground as they’re doing, as we speak right now, even if they had to wait till the violence came to Congress; they didn’t care if it came to other people, it restores the most powerful tool we’ve got in the existing system. And it obliterates this pretense that you have to have, you know, months-long obscure investigations. They’ve always run from the open, public blatant abuses of power that they could impeach in an hour for these obscure allegations that they couldn’t prove, but they could have months of investigation, right? This just destroys that, if they impeach a week after a blatant abuse of power. Because then why can’t we impeach all kinds of officials the week after they blatantly abuse power?
What do you see in Canada, the U.K. and Europe in terms of military budgets and this kind of systemic corruption? Do you see the same kind of imbalances in other regions?
Some places it’s blatant and obvious, right? In a brutal Middle Eastern dictatorship or Asian dictatorship, where a multibillionaire and his close family and friends run everything openly and blatantly, people understand it’s an oligarchy. The United States is perhaps at the other extreme in terms of public relations accomplishments, in that most of the people have no idea it’s an oligarchy and think that the rest of the world needs to be trained and brought up to speed and improved to be an egalitarian democratic society like the United States.
I wrote a book last year about dictatorships armed, funded, trained by the United States, which is almost all of them. The U.S. military arms, trains, funds almost every brutal dictatorship’s military in the world. In the United States, every day some hideous thing happens, and you can find the reports: “This is not who we are.” Right? Who we are is very clearly never who we are, whatever the hell that is; but every politician says, “This is not who we are.” Every damn day, right? And people believe it.
We wait for representatives to mull things over with their decisions; and we pressure and hope they’re going to go fast, but it always takes time. Presumably public assemblies would enable people to have a more immediate ongoing say and avoid slow progress; do you see that as feasible?
I’ve been in favor of public assemblies, and numerous other possible reforms, for many years. If I could make them happen tomorrow, I would.
What stops them from happening?
The corruption. The inertia of those who want power. The iron law of institutions, which is to say that someone within an institution cares less about what that institution does, or its power in the world, than they do about their relative place within it. So Congress members don’t care if the president gets to do everything as an emperor as long as, relative to other Congress members, they have power, right? So if the president is from their party, they’re just an obedient sheep in that party. This is another part of the corruption in the United States, more so than in most countries because of its winner-take-all, two-party system. With the two parties running the debates and running the elections, you’ve got all this money and all this influence and all this corruption just going to the tops of the two parties, and then all the party members just obeying their party leaders. And so you don’t have somebody trying to represent 800,000 people, while being bought off, you have somebody just trying to represent the leader of their party.
Why would the people who’ve been elected and kept in office for decades want to reform that system that they live in? Why would they want to create a new branch of government that can take power away from them? These sorts of reforms have to be imposed from without but are harder to impose than all of the ordinary — you know, raise the minimum wage, create the right to organize, etc. — that have to get through this corrupt system. Because they’re taking power away from people. They want that power.
How can we counter that power with public assemblies, without having to try and tear it all down? How can we make systemic corruption our common enemy?
You know, in the United States you don’t even have a majority say on who becomes president from between the two hideous choices you’re given. We have people who’ve lost the popular vote but won through this system called the Electoral College. Well, that reform, which is largely nonpartisan, is two-thirds of the way toward getting done; we need a few more states on board then we get rid of the Electoral College. Then we have the national popular vote, you know, as if this was some radical development for the emperor, you know, for the guy who’s given more power than any Roman emperor ever dreamed of. And that’s doable without partisanship. But to say we need a common enemy, and not one party versus the other, on the day when every Democrat in Congress is denouncing the Republicans —
Instigators of sedition and treason and violent insurrection, and the media is telling everyone to unite and move on. And the Democrats are freaking out, and say, “How do we unite with people who brought armed attackers into our offices?” So it’s maybe the worst possible moment of my lifetime to say let’s find a common enemy, but I do think if people have to have an enemy, it should be the systemic corruption, it should be the systemic injustices, it should be the things that need fixing. If the Democrats had ever given anybody anything — you know, decent wages, better schools, a good environment, a safe retirement, anything — then would all these desperate people be turning to fascists to try to get things done?
They would not.
A lot of them wouldn’t, right? But the answer to that is not for the Democrats to make friends with the fascists, it’s for them to get stronger and tougher on behalf of majority progressive demands. So you actually sometimes need more division within Congress to get more unity as a nation around popular demands that the oligarchy doesn’t want. I do wish people could see the enemy as climate collapse, or nuclear apocalypse, instead of Iran or Russia, you know?
So if we call it systemic corruption, this thing where the oligarchy writes the rules and does whatever the hell they want, more or less, then at least we’ve named the thing that’s enabling this; and if they have rules that enable that, then maybe we can change the rules and get the other stuff better.
There are nations that have improved their rules and are doing better. The problem with the U.S. is that this 4 percent of humanity is humanity. There’s all these theories about how can we get universal health care to work; the fact that it works in practice in numerous countries around the world, at least better than what you’ve got in the United States, doesn’t matter a bit because that’s not humanity; this little 4 percent of humanity is humanity.
So the fact that Costa Rica and Iceland and all these other little countries have abolished their militaries and do better at everything else because of it is not relevant. They’re not seen as humans. And the fact that there are countries that have cleaned out a lot of the financial corruption; that have put in place credible, open, verifiable elections with fair access to media for all candidates and hand-counted paper ballots at the polling place doesn’t matter. Those aren’t the United States.
We have to figure out these reforms as if we were on our own planet by ourselves. I don’t think there’s a paradise, I can’t point to a nation we should duplicate, but if you want to do better at handling a disease pandemic, you don’t have to just figure out something from scratch when virtually every other country on Earth has already done better. I’m not a big believer that there’s one problem that solves all other problems, but if I were forced to choose one, probably this would be it. And I’m not a big believer that saying something with the right name or the right phrase has magical power, but it has some limited powers. The problem is: How do you say it on television networks that are owned by the corrupt system?
I think we need everybody to work on as many important campaigns and reforms as they can, and people who are good or passionate about one of them or the other should work on them, because yes, unless everybody drops everything and works on cleaning out the corruption, we’ll never get a clean system of government, and we’ll never be able to have real efforts toward sustainable peace. But unless we demand that the war be ended immediately, there are millions of people in Yemen who are going to die. We have a good shot, despite the corrupt system, of ending that one war. So what do we do? We try to do both.
I think people can get an even more real-life experience of something bordering on democracy by engaging with their local governments, getting their local governments to pass resolutions and ordinances and change policies and make demands of higher levels of government, because it’s so incredibly easy compared to the higher levels of government. It gives you an idea of what those higher levels of government should be like.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.