Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Rise and Fall of the American Republic

Over the past 30 years, we have been witnessing the slow demise of the American Republic.  I don’t mean that the United States will cease to exist, or that we will be conquered by some external power.  What I mean is that the principles on which this nation was founded and the philosophy that fostered the continued betterment of life for its citizens ... those things that made this country great and a beacon to the world ... have been and are now being weakened at an accelerating pace, to the detriment of our democratic principles and the common good.

The fundamental underpinning of the great American experiment is found in the Declaration of Independence.  It exists in two parts.  The first is the well-known phrase that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  The second equally essential part of the experiment is the statement “That to secure these Rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

These were radical, indeed revolutionary, concepts and they sparked not just the American revolution, but revolutions first in Europe, and ultimately throughout the world.  Even though America did not always live up to its founding credos, it was these credos and the strength and prosperity that flowed from them that made the United States the envy of the world.

When our nation was founded and for much of its history, it goes without saying that all men and women were not equal, under the law or otherwise.  Slavery existed as a legal enterprise until 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln.  But as then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson stated in 1963, “Emancipation was a Proclamation but not a fact.”  It would take another 90 years till the Supreme Court finally declared that segregated education was unconstitutional and a further 10 years before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which provided a statutory basis for blacks being treated equally under the law.  

Women ... the wives of the founders and the mothers of their children ... were legally chattel at the time.  Women had no rights at all, and whatever property they had prior to marriage (as the result of inheritance or otherwise) became the property of their husbands.  Though the legal rights of women were expanded during the 19th century, it was not until 1920 that women were finally given the right to vote.

These are the two most prominently cited examples of historic inequality in this country.  The other obvious, though less spoken of historically, inequality is one of wealth.  There  have always been masses of poor among the few rich, and that is indeed a fact of life in every society, regardless the nature of its government.  But over the decades, and especially since the beginning of the 20th century, government has passed laws which have both protected the common man from the power of the mighty (e.g. the Taft-Hartley labor law) and sought to at least partially ameliorate the economic inequality and its impact through programs that support the financially vulnerable.  The funds for such programs were made available by our system of progressive taxation, under which those who are more able contribute more to the betterment of the common good.

In each of these examples, while we are still a long way from a nation where “all men are created equal” or have equality of opportunity, government has over the years increasingly met its obligation as stated in the Declaration to “secure these rights” and to insure that every adult has the right to vote so that government does draw its powers justly “from the consent of the governed.”

But on all of these fronts, government and the nation as a whole has begun to disassemble these credos.  President Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.”  Over the next 30 years and continuing at an accelerated pace in the present, the Republican Party’s concept of government has been less government, less regulation (don’t interfere with business), smaller government, let people fend for themselves.  Their attitude is that if people don’t succeed, it’s their own fault.

This is a major shift in attitude from that contained in the Declaration and in the way our modern progressive government, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, developed during most of the 20th century.  And since the Republican Party has been the majority party in Congress for most of the past 30+ years, that has resulted in a major shift in government itself.  The result, together with the huge influence of big business in policy-making through lobbying, fundraising, and PACs, is that corporations pretty much rule our government and set policy.  It is no longer there to secure everyone’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  This has affected policy in all areas of government ... from clean air to mining on federal lands to social security to elections.

At the same time, Reagan’s introduction of the “me” generation has resulted in a major shift in cultural attitudes.  Everyone is now out for him- or herself.  The idea behind the American social contract that we all share a responsibility for the common good, and that those with more ability have a responsibility to contribute more to insure the common good is fast becoming out of date.  This is especially prevalent among the elite rich.  Indeed, not only have they little concern for the welfare of their fellow Americans; they have little concern for the welfare of the country because as citizens with a global range of business activity, they see no place as their “home.”  For the first time in our history, the rich are not committed to the United States.

The combined change in the attitude of government and the public has resulted in a retrenchment on the advances in equality that had been achieved over the previous century.  Over the past 30-40 years, the income of the working class or middle class has remained stagnant in real dollar terms while the top 5% have just gotten richer and richer.  The result is that income inequality is greater now than it has been since before the depression.

While people of color (primarily blacks and hispanics) have not become less equal during this period, they have made no progress in the march to equality.  They still lack equal opportunity because inner city schools remain subpar (and there are enough success stories now that we know that this failure is not a function of the students’ background) and because subtle discrimination is still rampant despite its having been illegal for decades.  There has been no push, except marginally, to do anything to change this situation.

Finally, there is the issue of ethics.  While ethics has never been part of America’s credo or ethos, based as it is on capitalism, during the middle of the 20th century ethics in government and business came to be expected and certainly was the culturally correct position.  But as the importance of money and business together with egocentrism has increased again, so too has the attitude that the end justifies the means.  If doing something unethical provides an opportunity to make more money, then corporations and financial titans as well as workers in the cogs of those organizations will do so without barely a second thought or care for who might get hurt, whether the general public or even customers.  It’s back to the future. 

That was the primary cause for the recent financial debacle that we are still recovering from.  Yes, many point to the repeal of Glass-Steagall (the depression era law that separated commercial and investment banking) as well as deregulation as having caused the crisis.  And while that is true, it is only true because people in business cannot be counted on to act in an ethical, professional manner.  They must be monitored to enforce an ethical code that respects the common good.

One could go on and on about the ways in which the government’s protection of the common good, thereby securing the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, has dramatically decreased over the past 30 years.  That there is less equality now than 30 or 40 years ago cannot be disputed (yes, women and gays/lesbians have more equality now than then, but that is mostly an upper class phenomenon).  

If this trend continues over the coming decades, the promise of the American Republic will have failed.  The concept of equality will be nothing but an illusion.  And government will not be there to secure rights for all and protect the common good.  Historically, our system struck a balance between private rights, the public good, and government.  That balance is on the tipping edge, if not already past it.