Post-First American Republic update

Sam Smith

As the Review has unfashionably suggested from time to time, the First American Republic ended in the 1980s. I put it like this in in a talk in 2004:

We live in a nation hated abroad and frightened at home. A place in which we can reasonably refer to the American Republic in the past tense. A country that has moved into a post-constitutional era, no longer a nation of laws but an adhocracy run by law breakers, law evaders and law ignorers. A nation governed by a culture of impunity, a term from Latin America where they know it well – a culture in which corruption is no longer a form of deviance but the norm. We all live in a Mafia neighborhood now.

It’s crazy, it happened so fast, it’s like in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern when Rosencrantz asks shortly before his death: “What was it all about? When did it begin? . . . Couldn’t we just stay put? . . . We’ve done nothing wrong! We didn’t harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said — no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we’ll know better next time.” Yet we have seen it all before. And it came with stories. A German professor after the World War II described it this way to journalist Martin Mayer:

“What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security.

“…To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted.’

“… Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.

“… Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). . . . You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair. ”

Thirteen years later and we still haven’t, for example, faced the fact that with the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court severely damaged American democracy by essentially turning it over to corporations and millionaires. We still believe we live in a democracy even if the Koch brothers own far more of it than we do.

It may help, however, to give an occasional update on how things have deteriorated in recent decades.

For example, not only has big money replaced ordinary citizens in determining our politics – witness the behavior of the current Congress, perhaps the most anti-citizen in history – but increased gerrymandering has weakened what power was left for the people. Right now, President Trump even has a commission whose duty – albeit not officially so – is to weaken the votes of those with whom he does not agree. And to add to the problem is something we never discuss: thanks to the shift in population of our states, over half of America is represented by only 18% of the votes in the Senate.

Here are some other things that have happened:

The distortion of the nature and role of business: Thanks in no small part to business schools, younger generations have been taught to accept major corporatism as an efficient and primary definition of good business, leaving out such key alternatives as small business, regional businesses and cooperatives. One hardly hears the word “anti-trust” mentioned any more. And few recognize that corporatism not only refers to the endemic influence of larger businesses but also to the duty of government to serve corporate interests. They had another name for this in Italy: fascism.

The distortion of the nature and role of education: Increasingly missing from public education are those matters that not only provide answers to specific questions but which provide students with the interest, curiosity, decency, and wisdom to be useful, positive, democratic and fair adults in society. Without the study of culture, moral issues, democracy, history and the arts, a student enters the world with huge gaps – yet the educational bullies insist we just ignore the matter.

Growing urbanism and smaller families – While smaller families provided needed help for capping population, it also means that, like growing urbanism, there are a smaller percentage of the population with tradition or skill for working cooperatively with others. Having lived most of my life in Washington, DC, but now in a Maine town of 7,000 I am struck by how many people I can now count on for help. For example, during a recent storm during which scores of trees fell blocking our nearby roads, a dozen or so neighbors voluntarily worked hours clearing the way without being asked but just seeing it as the right thing to do. This sense of responsibility and cooperation coincidentally contributes to a less combative and divisive politics.

Police forces increasingly acting as occupiers rather than members of a community: The disturbing number of police killings, particularly of blacks, was brought into focus recently when an officer shot the ISIS-involved man in NYC who drove his truck into a group of people. The officeer shot him in the stomach so he could live to be interviewed by officers. In other words, a presumed terrorist was treated better than a large number of black American minor offenders.

Another metaphor: During the 1968 riots in Washington, black mayor Walter Washington was called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Washington refused, saying that “you can replace material goods, but you can’t replace human beings.” Hoover then said, “Well, this conversation is over.” Replied Washington, “That’s all right, I was leaving anyway.” That’s not the way mayors talk these days.

The disappearance of cross cultural coalitions – You need look at nothing more than the stats to realize that blacks, latinos, labor or other groups can’t do it alone. But the effort to improve things have increasingly been left to niche activism, one subcategory of Americans declaring the wrongs against them and an agenda to correct it, but without organizing the support of those not like them. It may help to remember, for example, that the black civil right movement in the summer of 1964 trained and imported a thousand young whites from the north to help. You can keep identity and still work with others.

The exorcising of the white working class – A major part of the secret of the success of the Great Society was the blending of civil rights improvements with economic changes that also helped the white working class. And Franklin Roosevelt did more for poor whites in his first 100 days that liberals have done in the last four decades.

But today, the liberal presumption is that the white working class is intrinsically just a bunch of dumb racists who vote for Donald Trump. There is little understanding that liberals played a major role in turning the white working class vote over to Trump.

Even Black Panther Huey Newton noted that the African-American activist community “must also be able to realize that there are white people, brown people, red people, yellow people in this world who are totally dedicated to the destruction of this system of oppression, and we welcome that. We will always be open to working with that.”

And as Jesse Jackson pointed out about ML King: “He had this vision we should wipe out poverty, ignorance and disease, that you couldn’t do it on an ethnic basis. That was not, that was never going to be in the plan to wipe out Black poverty that would leave the Hispanics in poverty or Whites or women in poverty or Native American in poverty.”

But that’s not how things work today. Thus liberals talk repeatedy about “white privilege,” ignoring the truth outlined in the book, Hillbilly Elegy:

In 1970, 25 percent of white children lived in a neighborhood with poverty rates above 10 percent. In 2000, that number was 40 percent. It’s almost certainly even higher today. As a 2011 Brookings Institution study found, “compared to 2000, residents of extreme-poverty neighborhoods in 2005–09 were more likely to be white, native-born, high school or college graduates, homeowners, and not receiving public assistance.” In other words, bad neighborhoods no longer plague only urban ghettos; the bad neighborhoods have spread to the suburbs….

There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation. Even more surprising, 42 percent of working-class whites—by far the highest number in the survey—report that their lives are less economically successful than those of their parents’.

The environmental disaster
– The world has never had so many environmental problems yet our current government is dramatically reducing our efforts to do something about it, the media keeps the issue on the back burner, and ancillary crises such as forced emigration from unhealthy places are growing.

The lack of a moderating establishment – While the establishment is traditionally a impediment to progressive change, when a society in a state of democratic collapse, the lack of respectable public figures who citizens respect and listen to speeds up the process. A lot of this has to do with the media, which has a strong preference for the noisiest of the powerful. As a result, respected professors, ministers and other figures who use to be heard are largely ignored. The media has defined news as what the strongest and the loudest are up to. Thus the fake Christianity of white evangelicalism is given more media credit than real Christian churches. Even Bernie Sanders, who as this is written, polls as the most respected politician, takes a back media seat to the wild ones.

The collapse of the Democratic Party – The nomination of Bill Clinton was in no small part thanks to the falsely named Progressive Leadership Council which was trying to turn the Democratic Party into a lighter versions of the GOP. Clinton met their expectations in such ways as eliminating the Glass-Steagall Act (which helped to cause the recession of 2008), attacking public welfare and locking up large numbers of blacks. Barack Obama was less conservative than Clinton but was still well to the right of New Deal and Great Society Democrats. By the time Hillary Clinton came along, this GOP Lite approach proved an electoral disaster.

And now the good news. . .

That’s the history of the past few decades. But it was propelled by the last gasps of an aging culture that can still change politics but not its own life expectancy. In the 2016 election, Trump pulled 67% of white males 65 years and older, but only 31% of those 18-29. The most recent election was impresive for the number of young people gaining office – including transgendered and socialist. There is still no counter-culture and no clear agenda for change but, as Bob Dylan pointed out in 1964 the times are clearly a’changin’. Yes, we have to fight the old white greedsters, racists and pedophiles but we must to spare some time to build a second American republic. The time is right; we just have to take it.

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