On Politics & American Society in the 21st Century
I write this particular piece because I am hard pressed to put my thoughts to paper on the matter of politics and society in the modern United States. Too often the subject is glossed over by ideological ownership of a left versus right world. This is limiting and does not allow us to see the bigger picture in what our current climate looks like in the U.S. as of Summer 2020 CE. Let me preface, that although I am a student of History I wish to write in plain language and give anyone an opportunity to discuss my writing. I am not writing as an academic, but rather as a lay man seeking to put my opinion out on the matter of this country’s history. Let us begin with a very brief overview of American political foundations, and an amateur history lesson. If we count the beginnings of Political United States as being 1787 with the adoption of the Constitution, with the addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791 four years later, we see the start of an argument that continues to this day. The fundamental issue was not of state rights versus federal authority at any point other than the beginnings of our country. The real issue is bound in the tight little package of this document. It’s vagueness on human rights and liberties is the true issue at the heart of our current state of affairs.
My pocket constitution runs a neat 34 pages, which is surprisingly light reading for a playbook that has kept a monumentally large country running for approximately 233 years. This point cannot be stressed enough. It we look at what the United States was in 1791, it would not be strong enough to encompass the population of the current state of New York. The early U.S. was still a bunch of European colonies throwing themselves together for the sake of fighting off invasion (the irony*). The U.S. today is made up of about 326,625,791 people that we can count (as of July 2020). There is not another country in Western Europe that even comes close to our size. Let’s put that into perspective for later conversations of comparison (our closest sized countries include Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan). So to think that a tiny little document has held us together for that long is quite incredible really. But the story goes beyond the Constitution of course. Modern party politics are a far cry away from what we’ve experienced in our past.
If we resume our journey into the early 19th century (we’re talking about the 1800’s now) we see that state’s rights advocates and federal advocates have formed ideological camps and the founding of the two-party system in the U.S. But the time between our adopting the Constitution and the American Civil War is 74 years. So realistically, the issue boiled over in less than a century and had strong economic and social implications that had less to do with party ideology and more to do with societal issues. If we consider that power, privilege and oppression are very real forces in our world, then we can see how they worked their way into our founding document. The ugly truth of 1787’s world was that even after revolutionary action, those in power in the new United States were white, land and slave owning men. This conceptually meant that even for their enlightened status bestowed upon them by historians, these men still understood that retention of that power was in their best interest, and thus would not go off the deep end by giving away that exclusive right.
However, the genius of the constitution some would argue is that it was designed to be a living document with a whole lot of grey area, thus the American legal system and the amendment process. The courts would be interpreters of the constitution and utilize dialogue and debate to come to a consensus, similarly the Legislative branch would do the same to add anything to the constitution which starts a cycle of precedent setting for the courts and stabilization for the federal government. But it’s a little messier when it comes down to the individual rights of a human being in the United States, but more on that later. So now we get to the big hurdle that we must face as a nation: open civil war. In reality, the civil war represented a societal shift in the way we would view racism’s role in the power, privilege, and oppression dynamic lens. If you concede that slavery was the major capitalist force for a majority of the original 13 colonies and include the persecution and attempted annihilation of Native/Indigenous Americans across the continent, then you can begin to see how state’s rights gets mixed into the equation. There is nothing to be confused about here. Yes, politicians in the newly formed Confederate States were not recognized in their seizure of Federal lands that belonged to the United States of America, and thus caused President Lincoln to send troops to attempt to re-secure those lands. That would be the technical causation of a war. But the reality, written into the secession documents of the Confederate States, all pointed to the imminent dangers Lincoln and the Federal government posed to the economic and social institution of Slavery. Without it, the South had no means forward, and already saw the implications of an ever-globalizing world with industrialization.
The ramifications of giving up the current way of life for white, land slave owners harkened back to the same fears the founders had back in 1787. So what gave these men the ability to rebel? In truth many of them were not land or slave owners, only the select few were. So why did these other men follow? Because the systems of power, privilege and oppression had already worked wonders for the Confederate leadership. There were white men in the South who did not have the right to vote, had no steady income, and would be classified as poor or in poverty. Yet these men were socially better than their black, slave peers precisely because of the color of their skin. In fact, a majority of Americans in the Union most likely had the same fears as their white southern counterparts, which is why Lincoln and his administration distanced themselves from the concept of Slavery as the source for the war most of the time it was being fought. Once again, we see this has very little to do with party politics in the country. Respectfully, the issue that surfaces after the conclusion of the civil war is socialist in nature.
I always believed that reconstruction was one of the worst failures of the American government system. If reconstruction had been done differently, we might have seen the policies of F.D.R.’s New Deal sooner, which would have sparked the debate over human rights and liberties earlier in this country. Reconstruction was a prime example of a time and geographic location in which the Federal government could have experimented with protection of human right and ability to pursue happiness via challenging state authority over the matter, but it never came to pass. I point to F.D.R.’s new deal as the point that we can look to that explains much of our current two party-system. Not skipping over the importance of industrialization and immigration for our country, but for the sake of not boring you with a lecture I’ll ask you to do your own homework on what happens between the end of the civil war in 1865 and the start of the Great War (otherwise known as World War I) in 1914 which is only 49 years apart.
So if we keep in mind that the power, privilege, and oppression debate has boiled over to the surface in the United States by the end of the civil war, we can start to see a pattern of radical changes that come to our politics, economy, and overall society. Racism never takes a back seat in the struggle for workers’ rights and the new player on the enlightenment block for the 20th Century, the ever-dreaded Communism. The United States will realistically avoid a secondary Civil War only thanks to two major world wars that occupy everyone’s time and energy. But throughout this time frame, the country still undergoes radical changes. Immigration has eliminated the assimilationist route fore creating the armies of White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants that the formerly wealthy and powerful players need to retain their power. They are being replaced ever so slowly by Capitalists of the new era, described as both captains of industry and robber barons in the same breath. This is where economics begins to dominate the debate of power, privilege and oppression.
In the old era, all you needed was land and slavery, due to the lack of education and resources that most Americans had. Not to mention that weapons weren’t really an issue when they were single fire muskets that had the accuracy of an infant attempting to throw a fast ball from a pitcher’s mound in baseball. But now came the new era. People were fed up across the board, and were showing solidarity with their fellow men, women and children regardless of race, creed, religion, etc. The poor were advocating for assistance, and remarkably, the Federal Government was responding. The old guard for the country needed to act quickly, and they did. Those with power in the old era sought out their new era counterparts for discussion on laying the groundwork for the new America. They allowed their lands to be bought up by these mighty industrialists, as well as poured their capital into their ventures. In return, they set the course for lobbying on the social ramifications of a consumer market in America. A white middle class would be needed as a buffer from the poor minorities, and they would even take in the Irish and Eastern Europeans who could assimilate. They saw what happened when the Italians created their own social structures with the mafia system and could not let other minorities replicate the process.
So now we see how it all fits together. Politics became a Capitalist investment by the new era of powerful Americans. The Federal Government had been removed from the hands of the old era guards, because the constitutions allowed it to be so. Those with power knew they couldn’t get rid of the Constitution, but they could muddy the waters so to speak by advocating for state constitutions that could further create grey area for legal and tax purposes in divesting the interest of Federal protections on human rights and liberties. By gerrymandering voting borders and economic zones across the fifty states, you could reasonably assure power remained in your hands so long as you conceded a little here or there to placate the newly formed middle class, which would serve as the buffer to any real grassroot movement on behalf of the poor and marginalized. You had to make the second amendment right to bear arms a strictly white advantage, so you formalize the NRA as a proponent of gun ownership that argues for protection against the Federal & State Government (resurgence of the WASP army) but hypocritically condemns efforts by Blacks to do the exact same thing (Black Panthers as an example, connects to the whole Italian mafia lesson). Racism continued to play its ever-important role in segregating the classes, and then the new era power developed assimilation incentives for those minorities that did the unthinkable and joined the ranks of the new era capitalists in amassing huge wealth and resources.
In my opinion, state’s rights versus federal authority never played a key role in our politics, nor does the two-party system. We are still in the era of economic power, privilege and oppression that never really went away. If we look at things in this lens, we can see how the genuine issues in our country are social in nature, due to the lack of debate on what we want moving forward. This is a very simplified version of events, and we haven’t even touched on education, civic engagement, and the flaws of the legal system (you can’t say justice system because it isn’t, get it ?). This is my starting point for politics & society in America. When you look at the bigger picture, we are not so far removed from our starting point of adopting the constitution less than 250 years ago. What we need to do is start seriously discussing all the things I’ve mentioned and a lot of things I haven’t. So who wants to chat about it?