Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Troubled Republic On This July 4th

As we celebrate this July 4th, the state of our republic is troubled. Two core principles of American democracy are under attack … the role of government and the democratic process. And the attack is cynically being waged under the banner of protecting our system and our rights from the power of government.

As we all know, the Declaration of Independence’s most famous line is, “All men are created equal,” and that they have “unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Less commonly known are the words that follow … “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” In other words, the role of government is to act in a way so as to secure the rights of the people to equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Both of these thoughts were truly revolutionary in a world where governments were in the hands of and benefited solely those with power and wealth. This new view of the role of government and the equality of all people was the cornerstone of the American republic, despite the fact that it would take almost a century for African-Americans to become legally equal and another 50 years for women.

Over the course of the last century, after suffrage was made universal and all citizens were finally deemed to have the rights embodied in the Declaration, the role of government in securing those unalienable rights for all evolved of necessity to helping the less fortunate through a variety of government programs.  Prominent among them have been universal education, Social Security, labor laws, government welfare, and Medicare/Medicaid.

Without these programs, government recognized that the legal equality of all people was meaningless. People needed to be given real equal opportunity to pursue their rights. Both Republicans and Democrats agreed on this basic principle, but would of course regularly disagree on the particulars of government programs to secure that equality.

With regards to the process of our democracy since universal suffrage, it can best be summarized by the dictum, “One man, one vote.” This means that every citizen of voting age should be able to vote and that each person’s vote should count the same.

Viewed in this light, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United makes a farce of our democratic process by caring only for form, not substance. If those with wealth and power have the ability through television advertising to in effect control an election because of the disproportionate influence of such advertising, then those with wealth and power have achieved their aims through the back door.  Who votes is of little consequence if the real power lies elsewhere.

Only if candidates are on an equal or relatively equal financial footing can there be the fair contest of ideas that is essential to our democracy and to the efficacy of freedom of speech.

The health of our economy and the business community is of vital importance to the health of our country and the welfare of its citizens. But we have long since passed the day when one would say, “What’s good for General Motors, is good for the country.” The same criticism holds true for the radical pro-business, anti-government policies of the Koch brothers, the Tea Party, and their Republican allies. Our democracy depends on a balance between private rights, the public good, and government.

We are as Lincoln said, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Let us not pervert that heritage by making our system a government “of big business, by big business, and for big business.” Let us learn from the past, not return to it.