It’s traditional to hold up the United States Constitution as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. With changes in the Constitution coming slowly (or not at all as in the case of the Equal Rights Amendment), the Constitution may serve more like an anchor to old, discredited social norms than a shining beacon of equality and fairness.
Between 1776 and 1863, when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, slavery was legal. What was against the law was aiding or abetting a slave to escape. Asserting a person’s right to liberty was a serious crime. Furthermore, the rights of Native Americans were grossly inferior to the rights of immigrants and their descendants. The rights of Africans and their descendants were grossly inferior to the rights of people with light skin. And the laws were then, as now, generally made by the wealthiest 5% of the population and served their interests and those of their wealthy backers and friends rather than those of the voters. Nor did citizens have the protections of even a presumed equal status under the unequal legal structure wealthy people created, perpetuated and adjudicated. And the rights of people outside our borders were never even considered.
Our claims of being the most progressive society of its day became false when the French monarchy freed slaves in 1794. The French Revolution reinstated slavery, but France permanently abolished slavery five years before the United States. Note that this is counter to what Americans generally believe. And the great-great-grandchildren of the slaves we finally “freed” are still not treated as equals in many parts of our country! France was there before us and still is.
Our country was led by its wealthiest citizens; landowners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who had farmlands that required a large labor force. Slavery created their wealth and their ability to wield influence over ordinary people. Imagine a system where slave owners controlled the laws and the “norms” of society. Most of the founding fathers owned slaves at one time or another, even Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. And, when their idealism was in conflict with their economic interests, their economic interests and majority racial biases won out. Slavery and the laws to support slavery won out over fairness and their theoretical “equality.” And the rights enunciated in our Declaration of Independence were withheld from people in other nations as well as blacks and the Native American population in our own.
Our laws, as with our Constitution, have always been biased toward those with the wealth to influence both the voting public and their representatives.
The 2 US Senators from California speak for roughly 39 million people while the 44 Senators from Connecticut, Utah, Iowa, Nevada, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming speak for another 39 million people. The 31/2 million US citizens from Puerto Rico, Guam, The US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa don’t have any fully-empowered representatives in the Senate, the House of Representatives or the Electoral College. And the 7 hundred thousand citizens living in the District of Columbia have 3 votes in the Electoral College, thanks to the 23rd Amendment, passed in 1961, but no fully-empowered representation in the United States Congress. And this inequality is almost impossible to reverse simply because a similarly unequal system is the device mandated to change it.
This is why the Supreme Court and the Senate, which controls their membership do not represent the will of the people in the United States population or their best interests. The Supreme Court’s purpose is to blindly follow the Constitution in interpreting law, pulling us back to the “good old days,” which weren’t so good to slaves, native Americans, people in Third World countries or the average man. I’m not suggesting that the Supreme Court should be elected or subject to the whims of the people. But to suggest that they represent the best in us is to continue the pretense that our founding fathers were far better than we are today and I think that argument may have (finally) become settled by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement as well as the journey to “Make America Great Again” (once more after the gruesome failures of the Reagan presidency) has demonstrated; “deja vu all over again.”
The House of Representatives gives voters more or less equal representation, but this still eliminates United States citizens living in the District of Columbia and United States territories. However, each congressperson must be re-elected every two years, meaning that campaign finances are always the most critical item on their agendas, leaving little time or attention to the needs of their constituency. A Political Action Committee (PAC) such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) weighs in heavily with massive funding from both individuals and corporate sponsors, writes the legislation regulating their industry (which gives them the opportunity to buy votes with targeted special perquisites for supporters and slights for opponents), and then lobbies for its passage in the house itself, in the media, and through its members. Deals get made and a strong bias develops in the law even when a majority of voters oppose it.
The judicial system is politicized, overloaded and controlled by the least-populated states. The person with money and political influence comes out far better than the average Joe. When OJ Simpson was arrested for killing his ex-wife, a team of lawyers managed to create a fictional scenario through this long and expensive trial that members of the police force might have framed him. It was absurd and didn’t account for the long protracted car chase on Southern California freeways or the evidence presented, but the prosecution was overwhelmed by OJ’s team of lawyers. No poor person could have fared as well.
It would seem to me that all citizens should have the same level of legal defense for the law to be equitable and true to the slogan “all men [and women] are created equal.” Maybe such a system would force lawmakers to have far more equal protection under the law when they and their children were required to use a public defender so that they were actually equal rather than just theoretically equal. Likewise retirement systems and health care systems shouldn’t favor one group of people (such as government workers who have special retirement and health care coverage paid for by the rest of us but not available to us). This may surprise those that have never heard of the Public Employee Retirement Service in many states or the Federal Employee Retirement Service where those in government aren’t dependent on Social Security like the rest of us and so have voted exceptions to Social Security which provide benefits to military families without additional income to pay out these benefits. Had their families relied on the same funds, they might have found proper funding for surviving military family members rather than disguise a military expense as a civilian one and further unbalance the system many of us rely on.
The Supreme Court and the Senate represent small, agricultural states and the Presidency is strongly biased toward the same minority. It will be difficult to make significant changes – as the past has already shown us. The media is now almost all big money with a big thumb on the scales of public opinion, elections, legislation, and the judiciary. I’m not sure how any of this can be changed. Close to half of our population on both sides is listening to what the other half says is “fake news.” It’s not surprising that a consensus is so difficult to come by. And, if I had 2 billion dollars, I know I wouldn’t be willing to give half of it to my government so they could buy more lethal equipment to use overseas against “enemies” who have not threatened me, my family or my nation. Nevertheless, I’d like to fantasize a bit.
Let’s postulate that we closed the loopholes and taxed income past certain levels at higher rates – including corporations – with incentives, maybe even laws, for sharing half the profit (and loss) with employees that actually do the work of creating that profit (and loss). Let’s postulate that we created equal health care for all and paid for it with an equal percentage of income from all. Let’s create an education system that’s affordable (in whatever way works) for every person who has the aptitude and applies herself or himself. Let’s postulate that we slash our excessive and counter-productive “defense” budget, bring all of our armed forces home and slowly decommission our atomic weapons and most of our fighting forces. (The United States is currently spending as much as the next ten countries combined on a “defense” that is actually stirring up animosity toward us and violence at home and abroad. It is making us less safe and more objectionable and oppressive to the other 95% of humanity!). Our navy might either stay within 100 miles of our coastlines or operate under United Nations or Interpol control in international waters and when enforcing maritime law. I know this is a pipe dream, but I’m looking for a situation where people have a more equitable chance at success, health, well-being and happiness.
Even in this scenario, the wealthy still have an advantage over the average person. The economic system is still biased in their favor. The laws are still biased in their favor. And 99% of the population is still working for the wealthy 1% that owns the means of production.
This pandemic has taught us some interesting lessons if we care to study it. For one thing, disease and misfortune threaten us all more-or-less equally. And it turns out we are responsible for the health of the person standing next to us in line. For another, these are exceptional times and portend to give us even greater challenges in the future. This isn’t the end of the climate crisis by a long shot. The pandemics of the future will almost certainly pose progressively more difficult problems for us to solve. Automation, artificial intelligence and cheap high-quality foreign imports (with much lower labor/living costs) will continue to take away jobs despite what the liberals promise. But automation, smart machines and much cheaper foreign labor aren’t going to stop. If we don’t help other countries modernize and become equal to us rather than attacking them, the equality will happen by our middle class joining them in a new Dark Ages where all wealth and power is concentrated in a few families and the wealthy continue to embroil us, our children, and our grandchildren is senseless acts of violence against each other.
I see drastic changes in our future. And if we can’t change our attitudes, our values, and our ways of doing things, we may be in a world of hurt with the wealthy monopolizing money, capital, information and justice to the point where capitalism no longer works because nobody has the money to buy anything but the 1% that own everything. We go almost full circle back to a virtual form of slavery. And that, I assert, won’t be even close to a happy ending for any of us, even the wealthy 1%!
While America glorifies its fictional past, many in the “Old World” are embracing the future, giving human rights to everyone, rejecting their long history of fighting among themselves, recovering and training people rather than just punishing them, providing universal health care and actual equal rights and moving into a future with far less violence and far more promise for all Europeans than their ancestors – or ours – ever saw. It’s time to stop deluding ourselves with fictions about the “good old days.” They weren’t fair, equitable, safe, or equal.
The founding father’s didn’t free the slaves. Abraham Lincoln didn’t really free the slaves, either. There’s a reason MLK, Jr. declared, “I have a dream! … and one day, in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” and yet, more than 50 years after that speech, we’re still not equal. Until we have actually equal protection under our laws; until we have a more equitable distribution of the nation’s gross domestic product, the goods and services that we collectively produce but individually need to survive; until we work toward actual democracy; until we stop forcing our views on people in other countries through military violence, threats and economic sanctions, we will still be giving lip service to the idea that everyone deserves dignity, equality, respect, and an equal chance!
Our children and grandchildren deserve a better ending than drastic climate change and its never-ending catastrophic storms; increasingly lethal pandemics with viral agents evolving past our defenses, both natural and medicinal; and/or the massive devastation and poisoning of our bodies and food supply that all-out nuclear war would bring. We also need a way to change the basic rules other than all-out warfare among ourselves. The people of today need to find a better paradigm other than short-term winners and long-term losers. We need to get past us-or-them thinking. We need to continue to move toward equality and justice in an actuality that still falls far short of the ideal: “all men [and women][in all socioeconomic brackets][of all religious beliefs][with all sexual orientations][in all countries] are created equal” with unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
©David N. Dodson, Phoenix, AZ November, 2020