We, the Plutocrats vs. We, the People, Saving the Soul of Democracy

Excerpt and highlighting by Phyllis Stenerson 5/10/17
In one way or another, this is the oldest story in our country’s history: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a metaphysical reality — one nation, indivisible — or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others….Every claim of political equality in our history has been met by fierce resistance from those who relished for themselves what they would deny others… despite the flaws and contradictions of human nature — or perhaps because of them — something took hold here. The American people forged a civilization: that thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. Because it can snap at any moment, or slowly weaken from abuse and neglect until it fades away, civilization requires a commitment to the notion (contrary to what those Marshall housewives believed) that we are all in this together. American democracy grew a soulThe truth of our country isn’t actually so complicated.  It’s in the moral compact implicit in the preamble to our Constitution: we’re all in this together…  our connection to others goes to the core of life’s mystery and to the survival of democracy.  When we claim this as the truth of our lives — when we live as if it’s so — we are threading ourselves into the long train of history and the fabric of civilization; we are becoming “we, the people.”

The religion of inequality — of money and power — has failed us; its gods are false gods.  There is something more essential — more profound — in the American experience than the hyena’s appetite.  Once we recognize and nurture this, once we honor it, we can reboot democracy and get on with the work of liberating the country we carry in our hearts.

There is a vast difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud, a democracy in name only.  I have no doubt about what the United States of America was meant to be.  It’s spelled out right there in the 52 most revolutionary words in our founding documents, the preamble to our Constitution, proclaiming the sovereignty of the people as the moral base of government:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

What do those words mean, if not that we are all in the business of nation-building together? Now, I recognize that we’ve never been a country of angels guided by a presidium of saints. ..

Sixty-six years ago this summer, on my 16th birthday, I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town of Marshall where I grew up. It was a good place to be a cub reporter — small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy and learning something every day.  I soon had a stroke of luck.  Some of the paper’s old hands were on vacation or out sick and I was assigned to help cover what came to be known across the country as “the housewives’ rebellion.”

Fifteen women in my hometown decided not to pay the social security withholding tax for their domestic workers.  Those housewives were white, their housekeepers black. Almost half of all employed black women in the country then were in domestic service.  Because they tended to earn lower wages, accumulate less savings, and be stuck in those jobs all their lives, social security was their only insurance against poverty in old age. Yet their plight did not move their employers.

The housewives argued that social security was unconstitutional and imposing it was taxation without representation. They even equated it with slavery.  They also claimed that “requiring us to collect [the tax] is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage.”  So they hired a high-powered lawyer — a notorious former congressman from Texas who had once chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee — and took their case to court. They lost, and eventually wound up holding their noses and paying the tax, but not before their rebellion had become national news.

The stories I helped report for the local paper were picked up and carried across the country by the Associated Press. One day, the managing editor called me over and pointed to the AP Teletype machine beside his desk. Moving across the wire was a notice citing our paper and its reporters for our coverage of the housewives’ rebellion.

I was hooked, and in one way or another I’ve continued to engage the issues of money and power, equality and democracy over a lifetime spent at the intersection between politics and journalism. It took me awhile to put the housewives’ rebellion into perspective.  Race played a role, of course.  Marshall was a segregated, antebellum town of 20,000, half of whom were white, the other half black.  White ruled, but more than race was at work. Those 15 housewives were respectable townsfolk, good neighbors, regulars at church (some of them at my church).  Their children were my friends; many of them were active in community affairs; and their husbands were pillars of the town’s business and professional class.

So what brought on that spasm of rebellion?  They simply couldn’t see beyond their own prerogativesFiercely loyal to their families, their clubs, their charities, and their congregations — fiercely loyal, that is, to their own kind — they narrowly defined membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.  They expected to be comfortable and secure in their old age, but the women who washed and ironed their laundry, wiped their children’s bottoms, made their husbands’ beds, and cooked their family’s meals would also grow old and frail, sick and decrepit, lose their husbands and face the ravages of time alone, with nothing to show from their years of labor but the crease in their brow and the knots on their knuckles.

In one way or another, this is the oldest story in our country’s history: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a metaphysical reality — one nation, indivisible — or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.

“I Contain Multitudes”

There is a vast difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud, a democracy in name only.  I have no doubt about what the United States of America was meant to be.  It’s spelled out right there in the 52 most revolutionary words in our founding documents, the preamble to our Constitution, proclaiming the sovereignty of the people as the moral base of government:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

What do those words mean, if not that we are all in the business of nation-building together?

Now, I recognize that we’ve never been a country of angels guided by a presidium of saints.  Early America was a moral morass.  One in five people in the new nation was enslaved.  Justice for the poor meant stocks and stockades.  Women suffered virtual peonage. Heretics were driven into exile, or worse. Native people — the Indians — would be forcibly removed from their land, their fate a “trail of tears” and broken treaties.

No, I’m not a romantic about our history and I harbor no idealized notions of politics and democracy.  Remember, I worked for President Lyndon Johnson.  I heard him often repeat the story of the Texas poker shark who leaned across the table and said to his mark: “Play the cards fair, Reuben. I know what I dealt you.” LBJ knew politics.

Nor do I romanticize “the people.” When I began reporting on the state legislature while a student at the University of Texas, a wily old state senator offered to acquaint me with how the place worked.  We stood at the back of the Senate floor as he pointed to his colleagues spread out around the chamber — playing cards, napping, nipping, winking at pretty young visitors in the gallery — and he said to me, “If you think these guys are bad, you should see the people who sent them there.”

And yet, despite the flaws and contradictions of human nature — or perhaps because of them — something took hold here. The American people forged a civilization: that thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. Because it can snap at any moment, or slowly weaken from abuse and neglect until it fades away, civilization requires a commitment to the notion (contrary to what those Marshall housewives believed) that we are all in this together.

American democracy grew a soul, as it were — given voice by one of our greatest poets, Walt Whitman, with his all-inclusive embrace in Song of Myself:

“Whoever degrades another degrades me,
and whatever is done or said returns at last to me…
I speak the pass-word primeval — I give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms…
(I am large — I contain multitudes.)”

Author Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has vividly described Whitman seeing himself in whomever he met in America. As he wrote in I Sing the Body Electric:

“– the horseman in his saddle,
Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances,
The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles and their wives waiting,
The female soothing a child — the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard,
The young fellow hoeing corn –”

Whitman’s words celebrate what Americans shared at a time when they were less dependent on each other than we are today.  As Townsend put it, “Many more people lived on farms in the nineteenth century, and so they could be a lot more self-reliant; growing their own food, sewing their clothes, building their homes.  But rather than applauding what each American could do in isolation, Whitman celebrated the vast chorus: ‘I hear America singing.’” The chorus he heard was of multitudinous voices, a mighty choir of humanity.

Whitman saw something else in the soul of the country: Americans at work, the laboring people whose toil and sweat built this nation.  Townsend contrasts his attitude with the way politicians and the media today — in their endless debates about wealth creation, capital gains reduction, and high corporate taxes — seem to have forgotten working people. “But Whitman wouldn’t have forgotten them.” She writes, “He celebrates a nation where everyone is worthy, not where a few do well.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood the soul of democracy, too.  He expressed it politically, although his words often ring like poetry.  Paradoxically, to this scion of the American aristocracy, the soul of democracy meant political equality.  “Inside the polling booth,” he said, “every American man and woman stands as the equal of every other American man and woman. There they have no superiors. There they have no masters save their own minds and consciences.”

God knows it took us a long time to get there.  Every claim of political equality in our history has been met by fierce resistance from those who relished for themselves what they would deny others. After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation it took a century before Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a hundred years of Jim Crow law and Jim Crow lynchings, of forced labor and coerced segregation, of beatings and bombings, of public humiliation and degradation, of courageous but costly protests and demonstrations. Think of it: another hundred years before the freedom won on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War was finally secured in the law of the land.

And here’s something else to think about: Only one of the women present at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 — only one, Charlotte Woodward — lived long enough to see women actually get to vote.

“We Pick That Rabbit Out of the Hat”

So it was, in the face of constant resistance, that many heroes — sung and unsung — sacrificed, suffered, and died so that all Americans could gain an equal footing inside that voting booth on a level playing field on the ground floor of democracy.  And yet today money has become the great unequalizer, the usurper of our democratic soul.

No one saw this more clearly than that conservative icon Barry Goldwater, longtime Republican senator from Arizona and one-time Republican nominee for the presidency. Here are his words from almost 30 years ago:

“The fact that liberty depended on honest elections was of the utmost importance to the patriots who founded our nation and wrote the Constitution.  They knew that corruption destroyed the prime requisite of constitutional liberty: an independent legislature free from any influence other than that of the people.  Applying these principles to modern times, we can make the following conclusions: To be successful, representative government assumes that elections will be controlled by the citizenry at large, not by those who give the most money. Electors must believe that their vote counts.  Elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people, not to their own wealth or to the wealth of interest groups that speak only for the selfish fringes of the whole community.”

About the time Senator Goldwater was writing those words, Oliver Stone released his movie Wall Street.  Remember it? Michael Douglas played the high roller Gordon Gekko, who used inside information obtained by his ambitious young protégé, Bud Fox, to manipulate the stock of a company that he intended to sell off for a huge personal windfall, while throwing its workers, including Bud’s own blue-collar father, overboard.  The younger man is aghast and repentant at having participated in such duplicity and chicanery, and he storms into Gekko’s office to protest, asking, “How much is enough, Gordon?”

Gekko answers:

“The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars… You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip.  We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it.  Now, you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, Buddy?  It’s the free market. And you’re part of it.”

That was in the high-flying 1980s, the dawn of today’s new gilded age.  The Greek historian Plutarch is said to have warned that “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of a Republic.” Yet as the Washington Post pointedout recently, income inequality may be higher at this moment than at any time in the American past.

When I was a young man in Washington in the 1960s, most of the country’s growth accrued to the bottom 90% of households.  From the end of World War II until the early 1970s, in fact, income grew at a slightly faster rate at the bottom and middle of American society than at the top.  In 2009, economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez explored decades of tax data and found that from 1950 through 1980 the average income of the bottom 90% of Americans had grown, from $ 17,719 to $ 30,941.  That represented a 75% increase in 2008 dollars.

Since 1980, the economy has continued to grow impressively, but most of the benefits have migrated to the top.  In these years, workers were more productive but received less of the wealth they were helping to create. In the late 1970s, the richest 1% received 9% of total income and held 19% of the nation’s wealth. The share of total income going to that 1% would then rise to more than 23% by 2007, while their share of total wealth would grow to 35%. And that was all before the economic meltdown of 2007-2008.

Even though everyone took a hit during the recession that followed, the top 10% now hold more than three-quarters of the country’s total family wealth.

I know, I know: statistics have a way of causing eyes to glaze over, but these statistics highlight an ugly truth about America: inequality matters. It slows economic growth, undermines health, erodes social cohesion and solidarity, and starves education. In their study The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found that the most consistent predictor of mental illness, infant mortality, low educational achievement, teenage births, homicides, and incarceration was economic inequality.  

So bear with me as I keep the statistics flowing.  The Pew Research Center recently released a new study indicating that, between 2000 and 2014, the middle class shrank in virtually all parts of the country.  Nine out of ten metropolitan areas showed a decline in middle-class neighborhoods. And remember, we aren’t even talking about over 45 million people who are living in poverty.  Meanwhile, between 2009 and 2013, that top 1% captured 85% percent of all income growth.  Even after the economy improved in 2015, they still took in more than half of the income growth and by 2013 held nearly half of all the stock and mutual fund assets Americans owned. 

Now, concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if the rest of society were benefitting proportionally.  But that isn’t the case.

Once upon a time, according to Isabel Sawhill and Sara McClanahan in their 2006 report Opportunity in America, the American ideal was one in which all children had “a roughly equal chance of success regardless of the economic status of the family into which they were born.”

Almost 10 years ago, economist Jeffrey Madrick wrote that, as recently as the 1980s, economists thought that “in the land of Horatio Alger only 20 percent of one’s future income was determined by one’s father’s income.” He then cited research showing that, by 2007, “60 percent of a son’s income [was] determined by the level of income of the father. For women, it [was] roughly the same.” It may be even higher today, but clearly a child’s chance of success in life is greatly improved if he’s born on third base and his father has been tipping the umpire.

This raises an old question, one highlighted by the British critic and public intellectual Terry Eagleton in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

”Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality?… Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? Is it plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality?”

The answer, to me, is self-evident.  Capitalism produces winners and losers big time.  The winners use their wealth to gain political power, often through campaign contributions and lobbying.  In this way, they only increase their influence over the choices made by the politicians indebted to them. While there are certainly differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic and social issues, both parties cater to wealthy individuals and interests seeking to enrich their bottom lines with the help of the policies of the state (loopholes, subsidies, tax breaks, deregulation).  No matter which party is in power, the interests of big business are largely heeded.

More on that later, but first, a confession.  The legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow told his generation of journalists that bias is okay as long as you don’t try to hide it. Here’s mine: plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. As the late (and great) Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Of course the rich can buy more homes, cars, vacations, gadgets, and gizmos than anyone else, but they should not be able to buy more democracy. That they can and do is a despicable blot on American politics that is now spreading like a giant oil spill.

In May, President Obama and I both spoke at the Rutgers University commencement ceremony.  He was at his inspirational best as 50,000 people leaned into every word.  He lifted the hearts of those young men and women heading out into our troubled world, but I cringed when he said, “Contrary to what we hear sometimes from both the left as well as the right, the system isn’t as rigged as you think…”

Wrong, Mr. President, just plain wrong. The people are way ahead of you on this.  In a recent poll, 71% of Americans across lines of ethnicity, class, age, and gender said they believe the U.S. economy is rigged.  People reported that they are working harder for financial security.  One quarter of the respondents had not taken a vacation in more than five years.  Seventy-one percent said that they are afraid of unexpected medical bills; 53% feared not being able to make a mortgage payment; and, among renters, 60% worried that they might not make the monthly rent.

Millions of Americans, in other words, are living on the edge.  Yet the country has not confronted the question of how we will continue to prosper without a workforce that can pay for its goods and services.

Who Dunnit?

You didn’t have to read Das Kapital to see this coming or to realize that the United States was being transformed into one of the harshest, most unforgiving societies among the industrial democracies.  You could instead have read the Economist,arguably the most influential business-friendly magazine in the English-speaking world.  I keep in my files a warning published in that magazine a dozen years ago, on the eve of George W. Bush’s second term.  The editors concluded back then that, with income inequality in the U.S. reaching levels not seen since the first Gilded Age and social mobility diminishing, “the United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.”

And mind you, that was before the financial meltdown of 2007-2008, before the bailout of Wall Street, before the recession that only widened the gap between the super-rich and everyone else. Ever since then, the great sucking sound we’ve been hearing is wealth heading upwards. The United States now has a level of income inequality unprecedented in our history and so dramatic it’s almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around.

Contrary to what the president said at Rutgers, this is not the way the world works; it’s the way the world is made to work by those with the money and power.  The movers and shakers — the big winners — keep repeating the mantra that this inequality was inevitable, the result of the globalization of finance and advances in technology in an increasingly complex world.  Those are part of the story, but only part. As G.K. Chesterton wrote a century ago, “In every serious doctrine of the destiny of men, there is some trace of the doctrine of the equality of men.  But the capitalist really depends on some religion of inequality.”

Exactly.  In our case, a religion of invention, not revelation, politically engineered over the last 40 years. Yes, politically engineered.  On this development, you can’t do better than read Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of political science.

They were mystified by what had happened to the post-World War II notion of “shared prosperity”; puzzled by the ways in which ever more wealth has gone to the rich and super rich; vexed that hedge-fund managers pull in billions of dollars, yet pay taxes at lower rates than their secretaries; curious about why politicians kept slashing taxes on the very rich and handing huge tax breaks and subsidies to corporations that are downsizing their work forces; troubled that the heart of the American Dream — upward mobility — seemed to have stopped beating; and dumbfounded that all of this could happen in a democracy whose politicians were supposed to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. So Hacker and Pierson set out to find out “how our economy stopped working to provide prosperity and security for the broad middle class.”

In other words, they wanted to know: “Who dunnit?” They found the culprit. With convincing documentation they concluded, “Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.”

There you have it: the winners bought off the gatekeepers, then gamed the system.  And when the fix was in they turned our economy into a feast for the predators, “saddling Americans with greater debt, tearing new holes in the safety net, and imposing broad financial risks on Americans as workers, investors, and taxpayers.” The end result, Hacker and Pierson conclude, is that the United States is looking more and more like the capitalist oligarchies of Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top while the bottom grows larger and larger with everyone in between just barely getting by.

Bruce Springsteen sings of “the country we carry in our hearts.” This isn’t it.

“God’s Work”

Looking back, you have to wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs.  In the 1970s, Big Business began to refine its ability to act as a class and gang up on Congress.  Even before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, political action committees deluged politics with dollars. Foundations, corporations, and rich individuals funded think tanks that churned out study after study with results skewed to their ideology and interests. Political strategists made alliances with the religious right, with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, to zealously wage a cultural holy war that would camouflage the economic assault on working people and the middle class.

To help cover-up this heist of the economy, an appealing intellectual gloss was needed.  So public intellectuals were recruited and subsidized to turn “globalization,” “neo-liberalism,” and “the Washington Consensus” into a theological belief system.  The “dismal science of economics” became a miracle of faith.  Wall Street glistened as the new Promised Land, while few noticed that those angels dancing on the head of a pin were really witchdoctors with MBAs brewing voodoo magic.  The greed of the Gordon Gekkos — once considered a vice — was transformed into a virtue.  One of the high priests of this faith, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, looking in wonder on all that his company had wrought, pronounced it “God’s work.”

A prominent neoconservative religious philosopher even articulated a “theology of the corporation.”  I kid you not.  And its devotees lifted their voices in hymns of praise to wealth creation as participation in the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth.  Self-interest became the Gospel of the Gilded Age.

No one today articulates this winner-take-all philosophy more candidly than Ray Dalio.  Think of him as the King Midas of hedge funds, with a personal worth estimated at almost $16 billion and a company, Bridgewater Associates, reportedly worth as much as $154 billion.

Dalio fancies himself a philosopher and has written a book of maxims explaining his philosophy. It boils down to: “Be a hyena. Attack the Wildebeest.” (Wildebeests, antelopes native to southern Africa — as I learned when we once filmed a documentary there — are no match for the flesh-eating dog-like spotted hyenas that gorge on them.)  Here’s what Dalio wroteabout being a Wall Street hyena:

“…when a pack of hyenas takes down a young wildebeest, is this good or bad? At face value, this seems terrible; the poor wildebeest suffers and dies. Some people might even say that the hyenas are evil. Yet this type of apparently evil behavior exists throughout nature through all species… like death itself, this behavior is integral to the enormously complex and efficient system that has worked for as long as there has been life… [It] is good for both the hyenas, who are operating in their self-interest, and the interests of the greater system, which includes the wildebeest, because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution, i.e., the natural process of improvement… Like the hyenas attacking the wildebeest, successful people might not even know if or how their pursuit of self-interest helps evolution, but it typically does.”

He concludes: “How much money people have earned is a rough measure of how much they gave society what it wanted…”

Not this time, Ray.  This time, the free market for hyenas became a slaughterhouse for the wildebeest. Collapsing shares and house prices destroyed more than a quarter of the wealth of the average household.  Many people have yet to recover from the crash and recession that followed. They are still saddled with burdensome debt; their retirement accounts are still anemic.  All of this was, by the hyena’s accounting, a social good, “an improvement in the natural process,” as Dalio puts it.  Nonsense.  Bull.  Human beings have struggled long and hard to build civilization; his doctrine of “progress” is taking us back to the jungle.

And by the way, there’s a footnote to the Dalio story.  Early this year, the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, and by many accounts the richest man in Connecticut where it is headquartered, threatened to take his firm elsewhere if he didn’t get concessions from the state. You might have thought that the governor, a Democrat, would have thrown him out of his office for the implicit threat involved.  But no, he buckled and Dalio got the $22 million in aid — a $5 million grant and a $17 million loan — that he was demanding to expand his operations. It’s a loan that may be forgiven if he keeps jobs in Connecticut and creates new ones. No doubt he left the governor’s office grinning like a hyena, his shoes tracking wildebeest blood across the carpet.

Our founders warned against the power of privileged factions to capture the machinery of democracies.  James Madison, who studied history through a tragic lens, saw that the life cycle of previous republics had degenerated into anarchy, monarchy, or oligarchy. Like many of his colleagues, he was well aware that the republic they were creating could go the same way.  Distrusting, even detesting concentrated private power, the founders attempted to erect safeguards to prevent private interests from subverting the moral and political compact that begins, “We, the people.” For a while, they succeeded.

When the brilliant young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s, he was excited by the democratic fervor he witnessed.  Perhaps that excitement caused him to exaggerate the equality he celebrated.  Close readers of de Tocqueville will notice, however, that he did warn of the staying power of the aristocracy, even in this new country.  He feared what he called, in the second volume of his masterwork, Democracy in America, an “aristocracy created by business.”  He described it as already among “the harshest that ever existed in the world” and suggested that, “if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter.”

And so it did.  Half a century later, the Gilded Age arrived with a new aristocratic hierarchy of industrialists, robber barons, and Wall Street tycoons in the vanguard.  They had their own apologist in the person of William Graham Sumner, an Episcopal minister turned professor of political economy at Yale University.  He famously explained that “competition… is a law of nature” and that nature “grants her rewards to the fittest, therefore, without regard to other considerations of any kind.”

From Sumner’s essays to the ravenous excesses of Wall Street in the 1920s to the ravings of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Fox News, to the business press’s wide-eyed awe of hyena-like CEOs; from the Republican war on government to the Democratic Party’s shameless obeisance to big corporations and contributors, this “law of nature” has served to legitimate the yawning inequality of income and wealth, even as it has protected networks of privilege and monopolies in major industries like the media, the tech sector, and the airlines.

A plethora of studies conclude that America’s political system has already been transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy (the rule of a wealthy elite).  Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, for instance, studied data from 1,800 different policy initiatives launched between 1981 and 2002.  They found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”  Whether Republican or Democratic, they concluded, the government more often follows the preferences of major lobbying or business groups than it does those of ordinary citizens.

We can only be amazed that a privileged faction in a fervent culture of politically protected greed brought us to the brink of a second Great Depression, then blamed government and a “dependent” 47% of the population for our problems, and ended up richer and more powerful than ever.

The Truth of Your Life

Which brings us back to those Marshall housewives — to all those who simply can’t see beyond their own prerogatives and so narrowly define membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.

How would I help them recoup their sanity, come home to democracy, and help build the sort of moral compact embodied in the preamble to the Constitution, that declaration of America’s intent and identity?

First, I’d do my best to remind them that societies can die of too much inequality.

Second, I’d give them copies of anthropologist Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeedto remind them that we are not immune.  Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize for describing how the damage humans have inflicted on their environment has historically led to the decline of civilizations.  In the process, he vividly depicts how elites repeatedly isolate and delude themselves until it’s too late.  How, extracting wealth from commoners, they remain well fed while everyone else is slowly starving until, in the end, even they (or their offspring) become casualties of their own privilege.  Any society, it turns out, contains a built-in blueprint for failure if elites insulate themselves endlessly from the consequences of their decisions.

Third, I’d discuss the real meaning of “sacrifice and bliss” with them.  That was the title of the fourth episode of my PBS series Joseph Campbell and the Power of MythIn that episode, Campbell and I discussed the influence on him of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed that the will to live is the fundamental reality of human nature.  So he puzzled about why some people override it and give up their lives for others.

“Can this happen?” Campbell asked. “That what we normally think of as the first law of nature, namely self-preservation, is suddenly dissolved. What creates that breakthrough when we put another’s well-being ahead of our own?”  He then told me of an incident that took place near his home in Hawaii, up in the heights where the trade winds from the north come rushing through a great ridge of mountains.  People go there to experience the force of nature, to let their hair be blown in the winds — and sometimes to commit suicide.

One day, two policemen were driving up that road when, just beyond the railing, they saw a young man about to jump.  One of the policemen bolted from the car and grabbed the fellow just as he was stepping off the ledge.  His momentum threatened to carry both of them over the cliff, but the policeman refused to let go.  Somehow he held on long enough for his partner to arrive and pull the two of them to safety.  When a newspaper reporter asked, “Why didn’t you let go? You would have been killed,” he answered: “I couldn’t… I couldn’t let go.  If I had, I couldn’t have lived another day of my life.”

Campbell then added: “Do you realize what had suddenly happened to that policeman? He had given himself over to death to save a stranger.  Everything else in his life dropped off. His duty to his family, his duty to his job, his duty to his own career, all of his wishes and hopes for life, just disappeared.” What mattered was saving that young man, even at the cost of his own life.

How can this be, Campbell asked?  Schopenhauer’s answer, he said, was that a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical reality, which is that you and the other are two aspects of one life, and your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time.  Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life.

Sometimes, however instinctively or consciously, our actions affirm that reality through some unselfish gesture or personal sacrifice. It happens in marriage, in parenting, in our relations with the people immediately around us, and in our participation in building a society based on reciprocity.

The truth of our country isn’t actually so complicated.  It’s in the moral compact implicit in the preamble to our Constitution: we’re all in this together.  We are all one another’s first responders.  As the writer Alberto Rios once put it, “I am in your family tree and you are in mine.”

I realize that the command to love our neighbor is one of the hardest of all religious concepts, but I also recognize that our connection to others goes to the core of life’s mystery and to the survival of democracy.  When we claim this as the truth of our lives — when we live as if it’s so — we are threading ourselves into the long train of history and the fabric of civilization; we are becoming “we, the people.”

The religion of inequality — of money and power — has failed us; its gods are false gods.  There is something more essential — more profound — in the American experience than the hyena’s appetite.  Once we recognize and nurture this, once we honor it, we can reboot democracy and get on with the work of liberating the country we carry in our hearts.

© 2016 Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. His previous shows on PBS included NOW with Bill Moyers and Bill Moyers Journal. Over the past three decades he has become an icon of American journalism and is the author of many books, including Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, Moyers on Democracy, and Bill Moyers: On Faith & Reason. He was one of the organizers of the Peace Corps, a special assistant for Lyndon B. Johnson, a publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News and a producer of many groundbreaking series on public television. He is the winner of more than 30 Emmys, nine Peabodys, three George Polk awards.

America Does Not Have a Religious Identity

The Constitution of Religious Freedom: God, Politics, and the First Amendment by Dennis J. Goldford, Baylor University Press , 2013 – Dennis J. Goldford is professor of politics at Drake University.

What inspired you to write The Constitution of Religious Freedom?

At a practical level, I have been fascinated by the rise of Christian conservatism, and particularly the claim of what some call Christian nationalism, that America is a Christian nation, as a major factor in American politics. At a theoretical level, I have always thought that, at its broadest, politics is the process by which we negotiate our differences. In particular, liberal democracy—a political order in which majorities rule but not over everything—is an institutionalized agreement to disagree. My concern is the question: what happens, and what do we do, if there are some things about which we cannot agree to disagree? Prominent on that list is religion.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

The central argument of the book is that the Constitution does not protect religion—it protects religious freedom. The latter is very different from the former, and understanding the distinction enables us to understand the political meaning of the religion clauses of the Constitution. Specifically, I argue that the meaning of the religion clauses is that the locus of religious identity is the individual, not the nation; that the American political order does not have a religious identity of its own, but, rather, is a political order that allows and encourages individuals and groups of their choosing to have their own religious identity without having one of its own.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

There is nothing I had to leave out. Baylor University Press was nothing but supportive of my scholarship. My goal was to explore what I think is problematic about the conventional discussion of the religion clauses of the Constitution: debates about “separation of church and state” or “neutrality” have come to obscure more than they reveal. The central question underlying an understanding of the political meaning of the religion clauses, as noted above, is whether the locus of religious identity is the individual or the nation. This is what the literature seems to miss.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

When I ask an audience of students or others whether America is a Christian nation, they usually reply by saying either that the Founders were themselves Christian or that the Founders intended that the nation be Christian. My argument is that the question here is not an historical one, but a theoretical one, the one noted in point 2 above.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

While a major purpose of the book is to make a significant contribution to an ongoing scholarly literature, I always strive to write for what I call the intelligent but uninformed reader who has no prior knowledge of the subject matter. That pushes me to be as clear, careful, and precise as possible in laying out the argument I am trying to make. We always have a reader or an audience in mind when we write, and thinking in terms of the intelligent but uninformed reader instead of the specialist forces me to avoid the hidden and uncontested assumptions that can weaken even the best scholarly work. Nevertheless, I did write The Constitution of Religious Freedom to make a scholarly argument for a scholarly audience and thus did include a substantial footnote apparatus.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

As my response to the next question indicates, I am certainly trying to provoke readers, but to do so in the sense of challenging their unexamined assumptions and encouraging them either to agree with me or to push me to reformulate my argument to address significant objections to it. At the same time, I am indeed attempting to advance a meaningful, scholarly argument about what having our Constitution means to the politics of religious freedom.

What alternative title would you give the book?

My original title was deliberately provocative: One Nation under Whose God? Law, Politics, and Religion in America. The experienced people at Baylor University Press said, however, that this title might suggest the mistaken perception that the book was more of a sociological work than the theoretical work it actually is. Deferring to their expertise, I chose the main title, The Constitution of Religious Freedom, with the deliberate double meaning of 1) the Constitution as a charter of religious freedom, and 2) the act of constituting religious freedom, and Baylor came up with the clever subtitle, God, Politics, and the First Amendment. I was able to give my concluding chapter the title, “One Nation under Whose God?”

How do you feel about the cover?

I’m actually quite happy with it. Beyond being aesthetically attractive, it makes a substantive point by nesting the title, my subject matter, in the text of the Constitution.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

That’s an interesting and difficult question. At the risk of giving an erroneous impression, I might say that I wrote the books I’ve written for a very selfish reason—in each case there was an issue or topic that I wanted to clarify for myself and find out what I really thought about it. In that sense, to borrow the old saying, I write to find out what I think. I enjoy the way an argument seems to take on a life of its own, such that the process of exploring one idea leads me to discover views or positions I didn’t know beforehand that I had. That said, I have always taught in teaching-intensive academic settings, and I regret never having had the chance to turn my dissertation on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit into a book and to make my definitive statement on the Hegel-Marx relationship. My scholarly interests simply changed along the way.

What’s your next book?

I have been interested in the constitutional claims of the Tea Party movement, whose supporters always express reverence for the Constitution and who claim to be “constitutional conservatives.” My early explorations have led me to believe that Tea Party constitutionalism, for all its reverence for the Constitution, is actually the preferred constitutional theory of the Anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution rather than the Federalist supporters. I am still in the process of deciding how I want and need to pursue this argument.

http://www.religiondispatches.org/books/rd10q/7108/america_does_not_have_a_religious_identity

The Long, Sordid History of the American Right and Racism

By Robert Parry, Consortium News May 20, 2013  

Excerpt

Racism has been a consistent thread weaving through the American Right from the early days when Anti-Federalists battled against the U.S. Constitution to the present when hysterical Tea Partiers denounce the first African-American president. Other factors have come and gone for the Right, but racism has always been there…

Though definitions of Right and Left are never precise, the Left has generally been defined, in the American context, by government actions – mostly the federal government responding to popular movements and representing the collective will of the American people – seeking to improve the lot of common citizens and to reduce social injustice.

The Right has been defined by opposition to such government activism. Since the Founding, the Right has decried government interference with the “free market” and intrusion upon “traditions,” like slavery and segregation, as “tyranny” or “socialism.”

This argument goes back to 1787 and opposition to the Constitution’s centralizing of government power in the hands of federal authorities…

… the Second Amendment was devised to give individual Americans the right to own and carry any weapon of their choice…it was primarily a concession to the states… a Southern state’s ability to maintain slavery by force and defend against slave uprisings… the concerns were not entirely over rebellious slaves, but also over rebellious poor whites…

Though the concentration of power in Washington D.C. gave rise to legitimate questions about authoritarianism, the federal government also became the guiding hand for the nation’s economic development and for elimination of gross regional injustices such as slavery. Federal action in defense of national principles regarding justice eventually helped define the American Left…

After World War II – with the United States now a world superpower – the continued existence of institutionalized racism became an embarrassment undermining America’s claim to be a beacon of human freedom. Finally, spurred on by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, the federal government finally moved against the South’s practice of segregation. That reignited the long-simmering conflict between federal power and states’ rights…Though the federal government prevailed in outlawing racial segregation, the Right’s anger over this intrusion upon Southern traditions fueled a powerful new movement of right-wing politicians. Since the Democratic Party led the fight against segregation in the 1960s, Southern whites rallied to the Republican Party as their vehicle of political resistance.

Opportunistic politicians, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, deftly exploited the white backlash and turned much of the Dixie-crat South into solid Republican Red. This resurgence of white racial resentments also merged with a reassertion of “libertarian” economics as memories of the Great Depression faded. In essence, the late Nineteenth Century alliance between segregationist whites in the South and laissez-faire businessmen in the North was being reestablished.

This right-wing collaboration reached a new level of intensity in 2008 after the election of the first African-American president whose victory reflected the emergence of a multi-racial electorate threatening to end the historic white political domination of the United States. With the election also coming amid a Wall Street financial collapse – after years of reduced government regulation — Barack Obama’s arrival also portended a renewal of federal government activism. Thus, the age-old battle was rejoined…However, the historical narrative that the Right constructed around the nation’s Founding was not the one that actually happened… in the Right’s revisionist version, the Articles of Confederation are forgotten and the Framers were simply out to create a governing system with strong states’ rights and a weak federal government. That fabrication played well with an uneducated right-wing base that could then envision itself using its Second Amendment rights to fight for the Framers’ vision of “liberty.”

As this right-wing narrative now plays out, Barack Obama is not only a black Muslim “socialist” oppressing liberty-loving white Christian Americans but he is a “tyrant” despoiling the beautiful, nearly divine, God-inspired Constitution that the Framers bestowed upon the nation — including, apparently, those wonderful provisions protecting slavery.

Full text

Racism has been a consistent thread weaving through the American Right from the early days when Anti-Federalists battled against the U.S. Constitution to the present when hysterical Tea Partiers denounce the first African-American president. Other factors have come and gone for the Right, but racism has always been there.

Though definitions of Right and Left are never precise, the Left has generally been defined, in the American context, by government actions – mostly the federal government responding to popular movements and representing the collective will of the American people – seeking to improve the lot of common citizens and to reduce social injustice.

The Right has been defined by opposition to such government activism. Since the Founding, the Right has decried government interference with the “free market” and intrusion upon “traditions,” like slavery and segregation, as “tyranny” or “socialism.”

This argument goes back to 1787 and opposition to the Constitution’s centralizing of government power in the hands of federal authorities. In Virginia, for instance, the Anti-Federalists feared that a strong federal government eventually would outlaw slavery in the Southern states.

Ironically, this argument was raised by two of the most famous voices for “liberty,” Patrick Henry and George Mason. Those two Virginians spearheaded the Anti-Federalist cause at the state’s ratifying convention in June 1788, urging rejection of the Constitution because, they argued, it would lead to slavery’s demise.

The irony of Henry and Mason scaring fellow Virginians about the Constitution’s threat to slavery is that the two men have gone down in popular U.S. history as great espousers of freedom. Before the Revolution, Henry was quoted as declaring, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Mason is hailed as a leading force behind the Bill of Rights. However, their notion of “liberty” and “rights” was always selective. Henry and Mason worried about protecting the “freedom” of plantation owners to possess other human beings as property.

At Virginia’s Ratification Convention, Henry and Mason raised other arguments against the proposed Constitution, such as concerns that Virginia’s preeminence might not be as great as under the weak Articles of Confederation and that population gains in the North might erode Virginia’s economic welfare.

But the pair’s most potent argument was the danger they foresaw regarding the abolition of slavery. As historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg wrote in their 2010 book, Madison and Jefferson, the hot button for Henry and Mason was that “slavery, the source of Virginia’s tremendous wealth, lay politically unprotected.”

The Slavery Card

At the center of this fear was the state’s loss of ultimate control over its militia which could be “federalized” by the President as the nation’s commander in chief under the new Constitution.

“Mason repeated what he had said during the Constitutional Convention: that the new government failed to provide for ‘domestic safety’ if there was no explicit protection for Virginians’ slave property,” Burstein and Isenberg wrote. “Henry called up the by-now-ingrained fear of slave insurrections – the direct result, he believed, of Virginia’s loss of authority over its own militia.”

Henry floated conspiracy theories about possible subterfuges that the federal government might employ to deny Virginians and other Southerners the “liberty” to own African-Americans. Describing this fear-mongering, Burstein and Isenberg wrote:

“Congress, if it wished, could draft every slave into the military and liberate them at the end of their service. If troop quotas were determined by population, and Virginia had over 200,000 slaves, Congress might say: ‘Every black man must fight.’ For that matter, a northern-controlled Congress might tax slavery out of existence.

“Mason and Henry both ignored the fact that the Constitution protected slavery on the strength of the three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and the slave trade clause. Their rationale was that none of this mattered if the North should have its way.”

At Philadelphia in 1787, the drafters of the Constitution had already capitulated to the South’s insistence on its brutal institution of human enslavement. That surrender became the line of defense that James Madison, a principal architect of the new governing structure, cited in his response to Mason and Henry.

Burstein and Isenberg wrote, “Madison rose to reject their conspiratorial view. He argued that the central government had no power to order emancipation, and that Congress would never ‘alienate the affections five-thirteenths of the Union’ by stripping southerners of their property. ‘Such an idea never entered into any American breast,’ he said indignantly, ‘nor do I believe it ever will.’

“Madison was doing his best to make Henry and Mason sound like fear-mongers. Yet Mason struck a chord in his insistence that northerners could never understand slavery; and Henry roused the crowd with his refusal to trust ‘any man on earth’ with his rights. Virginians were hearing that their sovereignty was in jeopardy.”

Despite the success of Mason and Henry to play on the fears of plantation owners, the broader arguments stressing the advantages of Union carried the day, albeit narrowly. Virginia ultimately approved ratification by 89 to 79. However, the South’s obsession over perceived threats to its institution of slavery remained a central factor in the early decades of the Republic.

Arming Whites

Though today’s Right pretends that the Second Amendment was devised to give individual Americans the right to own and carry any weapon of their choice – so they can shoot policemen, soldiers and other government representatives in the cause of anti-government “liberty” – it was primarily a concession to the states and especially to the South’s fears that were expressed at the Virginia convention.

Approved by the First Congress as part of the “Bill of Rights,” the Second Amendment explained its purpose as the need to maintain “the security of a free State,” an echo of Mason’s concerns about “domestic safety,” i.e. a Southern state’s ability to maintain slavery by force and defend against slave uprisings.

As the amendment emerged from various committee rewrites, it stated: “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” But that right, of course, did not extend to all people, not to people of color.

The Second Congress put substance to the structure of state militias by passing the Militia Acts, which specifically mandated that “white men” of military age obtain muskets and other supplies for participation in state militias. At the time, the concerns were not entirely over rebellious slaves, but also over rebellious poor whites.

Part of the backdrop of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 had been Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786-1787, an uprising of white farmers led by a former Continental Army officer, Daniel Shays. After ratification of the Constitution, the first significant use of federalized militias was in 1794 to crush an anti-tax revolt in western Pennsylvania led by poor whites known as the Whiskey Rebellion.

That uprising was treated as an act of treason as defined by the U.S. Constitution, although President Washington used his pardon power to spare rebel leaders from execution by hanging. Similar mercy was not shown when Southern states confronted actual or suspected slave revolts. In 1800, Virginia Gov. James Monroe called out the militia to stop an incipient slave uprising known as Gabriel’s Rebellion. Twenty-six alleged conspirators were hanged.

Jeffersonian Influences

Of course, slavery and racism were not the only defining characteristics of the Right during the country’s early years, as economic interests diverged and political rivalries surfaced. James Madison, for instance, had been a key protégé of George Washington and an ally of Alexander Hamilton during the fight for the Constitution.

Madison had even advocated for a greater concentration of power in the federal government, including giving Congress the explicit power to veto state laws. However, after the Constitution was in place, Madison began siding with his Virginian neighbor (and fellow slave-owner) Thomas Jefferson in political opposition to the Federalists.

In the first years of the constitutional Republic, the Federalists, led by President Washington and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, pushed the limits of federal power, particularly with Hamilton’s idea of a national bank which was seen as favoring the financial interests of the North to the detriment of the more agrarian South.

The Jeffersonians, coalescing around Jefferson and Madison, fiercely opposed Hamilton’s national economic planning though the differences often seemed to be driven by personal animosities and regional rivalries as much as by any grand ideological vision regarding government authority. The Jeffersonians, for instance, were sympathetic to the bloody French Revolution, which made a mockery of the rule of law and the restraint of government power.

Nevertheless, history has generally been kind to Jefferson’s enthusiasm for a more agrarian America and his supposed commitment to the common man. But what is left out of this praise for “Jeffersonian democracy” is that Jefferson’s use of the word “farmers” was often a euphemism for his actual political base, the slave-owning plantation aristocrats of the South.

At his core, despite his intellectual brilliance, Jefferson was just another Southern hypocrite. He wrote that “all men are created equal” (in the Declaration of Independence) but he engaged in pseudo-science to portray African-Americans as inferior to whites (as he did in his Notes on the State of Virginia).

His racism rationalized his own economic and personal reliance on slavery. While desperately afraid of slave rebellions, he is alleged to have taken a young slave girl, Sally Hemings, as a mistress.

Jefferson’s hypocrisy also surfaced in his attitudes toward a slave revolt in the French colony of St. Domingue, where African slaves took seriously the Jacobins’ cry of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” After their demands for freedom were rebuffed and the brutal French plantation system continued, violent slave uprisings followed. Hundreds of white plantation owners were slain as the rebels overran the colony. A self-educated slave named Toussaint L’Ouverture emerged as the revolution’s leader, demonstrating skills on the battlefield and in the complexities of politics.

The ‘Black Jacobins’

Despite the atrocities committed by both sides of the conflict, the rebels – known as the “Black Jacobins” – gained the sympathy of the American Federalists. L’Ouverture negotiated friendly relations with the Federalist administration under President John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, a native of the Caribbean himself, helped L’Ouverture draft a constitution.

But events in Paris and Washington soon conspired to undo the promise of Haiti’s emancipation from slavery. Despite the Federalist sympathies, many American slave-owners, including Jefferson, looked nervously at the slave rebellion in St. Domingue. Jefferson feared that slave uprisings might spread northward. “If something is not done, and soon done,” Jefferson wrote in 1797, “we shall be the murderers of our own children.”

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the chaos and excesses of the French Revolution led to the ascendance of Napoleon Bonaparte, a brilliant and vain military commander possessed of legendary ambition. As he expanded his power across Europe, Napoleon also dreamed of rebuilding a French empire in the Americas.

In 1801, Jefferson became the third President of the United States – and his interests at least temporarily aligned with Napoleon’s. The French dictator wanted to restore French control of St. Domingue and Jefferson wanted to see the slave rebellion crushed. President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison collaborated with Napoleon through secret diplomatic channels. Napoleon asked Jefferson if the United States would help a French army traveling by sea to St. Domingue. Jefferson replied that “nothing will be easier than to furnish your army and fleet with everything and reduce Toussaint [L’Ouverture] to starvation.”

But Napoleon had a secret second phase of his plan that he didn’t share with Jefferson. Once the French army had subdued L’Ouverture and his rebel force, Napoleon intended to advance to the North American mainland, basing a new French empire in New Orleans and settling the vast territory west of the Mississippi River.

Stopping Napoleon

In 1802, the French expeditionary force achieved initial success against the slave army, driving L’Ouverture’s forces back into the mountains. But, as they retreated, the ex-slaves torched the cities and the plantations, destroying the colony’s once-thriving economic infrastructure. L’Ouverture, hoping to bring the war to an end, accepted Napoleon’s promise of a negotiated settlement that would ban future slavery in the country. As part of the agreement, L’Ouverture turned himself in.

But Napoleon broke his word. Jealous and contemptuous of L’Ouverture, who was regarded by some admirers as a general with skills rivaling Napoleon’s, the French dictator had L’Ouverture shipped in chains back to Europe where he was mistreated and died in prison.

Infuriated by the betrayal, L’Ouverture’s young generals resumed the war with a vengeance. In the months that followed, the French army – already decimated by disease – was overwhelmed by a fierce enemy fighting in familiar terrain and determined not to be put back into slavery. Napoleon sent a second French army, but it too was destroyed. Though the famed general had conquered much of Europe, he lost 24,000 men, including some of his best troops, in St. Domingue before abandoning his campaign. The death toll among the ex-slaves was much higher, but they had prevailed, albeit over a devastated land.

By 1803, a frustrated Napoleon – denied his foothold in the New World – agreed to sell New Orleans and the Louisiana territories to Jefferson, a negotiation handled by Madison that ironically required just the sort of expansive interpretation of federal powers that the Jeffersonians ordinarily disdained. However, a greater irony was that the Louisiana Purchase, which opened the heart of the present United States to American settlement and is regarded as possibly Jefferson’s greatest achievement as president, had been made possible despite Jefferson’s misguided – and racist – collaboration with Napoleon.

“By their long and bitter struggle for independence, St. Domingue’s blacks were instrumental in allowing the United States to more than double the size of its territory,” wrote Stanford University professor John Chester Miller in his book, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. But, Miller observed, “the decisive contribution made by the black freedom fighters … went almost unnoticed by the Jeffersonian administration.”

Consequences of Racism

Without L’Ouverture’s leadership, the island nation fell into a downward spiral. In 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the radical slave leader who had replaced L’Ouverture, formally declared the nation’s independence and returned it to its original Indian name, Haiti. A year later, apparently fearing a return of the French, Dessalines ordered the massacre of the remaining French whites on the island. Jefferson reacted to the bloodshed by imposing a stiff economic embargo on Haiti. In 1806, Dessalines himself was brutally assassinated, touching off a cycle of political violence that would haunt Haiti for the next two centuries.

Even in his final years, Jefferson remained obsessed with Haiti and its link to the issue of American slavery. In the 1820s, the former president proposed a scheme for taking away the children born to black slaves in the United States and shipping them to Haiti. In that way, Jefferson posited that both slavery and America’s black population could be phased out. Eventually, in Jefferson’s view, Haiti would be all black and the United States white.

While the racism of Jefferson and many of his followers may be undeniable, it is not so easy to distinguish between Right and Left in those early years of the American Republic. Though Hamilton was more open-minded toward freedom for black slaves, there were elements of his government intervention on behalf of the fledgling financial sector that might today be regarded as “pro-business” or elitist as there were parts of Jefferson’s attitude toward greater populism that might be seen as more “democratic.”

Stumbling toward War

Yet, as the first generation of American leaders passed away and the nation expanded westward, the issue of slavery remained a threat to America’s unity. The South’s aggressive defense of its lucrative institution of slavery opened violent rifts between pro-slave and pro-free settlers in territories to the west.

The modern distinctions between America’s Right and Left also became more pronounced, defined increasingly by race. The North, building a manufacturing economy and influenced by the emancipationist movement, turned increasingly against slavery, while the South, with a more agrarian economy and much of its capital invested in slaves, could see no future without the continuation of slavery.

Politically, those distinctions played out not unlike what Anti-Federalists George Mason and Patrick Henry had predicted at Virginia’s ratification convention in 1788. The North gradually gained dominance in wealth and population and the South’s barbaric practice of slavery emerged as a hindrance to America’s growing reputation in the world.

So, a key divide of U.S. politics between Right and Left became the differences over issues of slavery and race. The racist aspects of the Anti-Federalists and the “Jeffersonian democrats” became a defining feature of the American Right as captured in the argument for “states’ rights,” i.e., the rights of the Southern states either to nullify federal laws or to secede from the Union.

Though the concentration of power in Washington D.C. gave rise to legitimate questions about authoritarianism, the federal government also became the guiding hand for the nation’s economic development and for elimination of gross regional injustices such as slavery. Federal action in defense of national principles regarding justice eventually helped define the American Left.

But the slave-owning South would not go down without a fight. After the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860, 11 Southern states seceded from the Union and established the Confederate States of America with the goal of perpetuating slavery forever. It took four years of war to force the Southern states back into the Union and finally bring slavery to an end.

However, the Southern aristocracy soon reclaimed control of the region’s political structure and instituted nearly a century more of racial oppression against blacks. During this Jim Crow era, racism – and the cruel enforcement of racial segregation – remained central elements of the American Right.

An Anti-Government Coalition

In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century and the early Twentieth Century, other political and economic factors bolstered the Right, particularly a class of Northern industrialists and financiers known as the Robber Barons. Their insistence on laissez-faire economics in the North – and their opposition to reformers such as Theodore Roosevelt – dovetailed with anti-federal attitudes among the South’s white aristocracy.

That coalition, however, was shattered by a string of Wall Street panics and other economic catastrophes culminating in the Great Depression. With millions of Americans out of work and many facing starvation, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration initiated the New Deal which put people back to work building national infrastructure and imposing government regulations on the freewheeling ways of Wall Street.

Under Roosevelt, laws were changed to respect the rights of labor unions and social movements arose demanding greater civil rights for blacks and women. The Left gained unprecedented ascendance. However, the old alliance of rich Northern industrialists and Southern segregationists saw dangers in this new assertion of federal power. The business barons saw signs of “socialism” and the white supremacists feared “race-mixing.”

After World War II – with the United States now a world superpower – the continued existence of institutionalized racism became an embarrassment undermining America’s claim to be a beacon of human freedom. Finally, spurred on by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists, the federal government finally moved against the South’s practice of segregation. That reignited the long-simmering conflict between federal power and states’ rights.

Though the federal government prevailed in outlawing racial segregation, the Right’s anger over this intrusion upon Southern traditions fueled a powerful new movement of right-wing politicians. Since the Democratic Party led the fight against segregation in the 1960s, Southern whites rallied to the Republican Party as their vehicle of political resistance.

Opportunistic politicians, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, deftly exploited the white backlash and turned much of the Dixie-crat South into solid Republican Red. This resurgence of white racial resentments also merged with a reassertion of “libertarian” economics as memories of the Great Depression faded. In essence, the late Nineteenth Century alliance between segregationist whites in the South and laissez-faire businessmen in the North was being reestablished.

This right-wing collaboration reached a new level of intensity in 2008 after the election of the first African-American president whose victory reflected the emergence of a multi-racial electorate threatening to end the historic white political domination of the United States. With the election also coming amid a Wall Street financial collapse – after years of reduced government regulation — Barack Obama’s arrival also portended a renewal of federal government activism. Thus, the age-old battle was rejoined.

Yet, given the cultural tenor of the time, the Right found it difficult to engage in overt racial slurs against Obama, nor could it openly seek to deny voting rights to black and brown people. New code words were needed. So Obama’s legitimacy as an American was questioned with spurious claims that he had been born in Kenya, and Republicans demanded tighter ballot security to prevent “voter fraud.”

Today’s Right also recognized that it could not simply emphasize its Confederate heritage. A more politically correct re-branding was needed. So, the Right shifted its imagery from the “Stars and Bars” battle flag of the Confederacy to the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag of the American Revolution. That way, Americans who don’t overtly see themselves as racist could be drawn into the movement. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Re-Branding: 1860 to 1776 [3].”]

However, the historical narrative that the Right constructed around the nation’s Founding was not the one that actually happened. In seeking to present themselves as the true defenders of the Constitution, the Right had to air-brush out the failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation, which had made the states “sovereign” and “independent” with the central government just a “league of friendship.”

The Constitution represented the nation’s greatest transfer of power into federal hands in U.S. history, as engineered by Washington, Madison and Hamilton. Indeed, Madison favored even greater dominance by the central government over the states than he ultimately got in the Constitution.

However, in the Right’s revisionist version, the Articles of Confederation are forgotten and the Framers were simply out to create a governing system with strong states’ rights and a weak federal government. That fabrication played well with an uneducated right-wing base that could then envision itself using its Second Amendment rights to fight for the Framers’ vision of “liberty.”

As this right-wing narrative now plays out, Barack Obama is not only a black Muslim “socialist” oppressing liberty-loving white Christian Americans but he is a “tyrant” despoiling the beautiful, nearly divine, God-inspired Constitution that the Framers bestowed upon the nation — including, apparently, those wonderful provisions protecting slavery.


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/long-sordid-history-american-right-and-racism

Links:
[1] http://www.consortiumnews.com
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/robert-parry
[3] http://consortiumnews.com/2013/05/07/the-rights-re-branding-1860-to-1776/
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/race
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/right
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/america
[7] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

The Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights: A Transcription

The Preamble to The Bill of Rights

Congress of the United States
begun and held at the City of New-York, on
Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution; viz.

ARTICLES in addition to, and Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the fifth Article of the original Constitution.

Note: The following text is a transcription of the first ten amendments to the Constitution in their original form. These amendments were ratified December 15, 1791, and form what is known as the “Bill of Rights.”

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

 

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

 

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

 

Amendment VII

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

 

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

 

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

 

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

 

Note: The capitalization and punctuation in this version is from the enrolled original of the Joint Resolution of Congress proposing the Bill of Rights, which is on permanent display in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.

 

http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights_transcript.html

 

During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution, its opponents repeatedly charged that the Constitution as drafted would open the way to tyranny by the central government. Fresh in their minds was the memory of the British violation of civil rights before and during the Revolution. They demanded a “bill of rights” that would spell out the immunities of individual citizens. Several state conventions in their formal ratification of the Constitution asked for such amendments; others ratified the Constitution with the understanding that the amendments would be offered.

On September 25, 1789, the First Congress of the United States therefore proposed to the state legislatures 12 amendments to the Constitution that met arguments most frequently advanced against it. The first two proposed amendments, which concerned the number of constituents for each Representative and the compensation of Congressmen, were not ratified. Articles 3 to 12, however, ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, constitute the first 10 amendments of the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights.html

Religion and the Constitution: The Triumph of Practical Politics

by Martin E. Marty, Religion-Online.org,The Christian Century March 23-30, l994

Excerpt

“It is one of the striking facts of American history that the American Revolution was led by men who were not very religious,” wrote Gordon Wood in New York History. “At the best the Founding Fathers only passively believed in organized Christianity and at worst they scorned and ridiculed it.” … assess the religious and metaphysical foundations and contentions of their thought. God comes up often, but almost never in biblical terms; “God,” we remember, was generic for deists and theists, philosophers and believers alike…… While practical politics was the preoccupation of these debaters, they were debating what was deepest in the people’s minds and hearts. … that language does not advance the case for seeing America as a Christian country. .

The founders were aware of what James Madison called “various and irreconcilable . : . doctrines of Religion” and they were occasionally alert to world religions…

One of the most serious issues in constitutional discourse was the virtue of the people, since constitutional law would be effective only if citizens respected it…

…  the founders’ practical politics displaced and left little room for sustained discussion of the metaphysical, metaethical and theological backdrop to constitutionalism. The debates occurred at a time when there was enough Enlightenment talk about “Nature’s God” to compromise evangelical talk about the God of the Bible in the affairs of the United States. When one contrasts outcomes in the United States with those in Europe, one is tempted .

The evangelicalization of American culture, then, did not derive from the constitutional period but from the times that followed, times of revivalism and immigration…The language of the constitutional debates was, like that of the Almighty, in Madison’s view, “rendered dim and doubtful, by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.”…

Full text

“It is one of the striking facts of American history that the American Revolution was led by men who were not very religious,” wrote Gordon Wood in New York History. “At the best the Founding Fathers only passively believed in organized Christianity and at worst they scorned and ridiculed it.” When asked why the Constitution did not mention God, Alexander Hamilton is said to have answered, “We forgot.”

As a major interpreter of our country’s founding, Wood reflects the influence of his teacher Bernard Bailyn, who in two important new volumes provides the best general access to the period in which the Founding Fathers — yes, they were all men — debated their Constitution of 1787 and sold themselves, each other and the public on its ratification. This generous sampling of the argument helps contemporary readers assess the religious and metaphysical foundations and contentions of their thought.

Northwestern University law professor Stephen Presser has said that “at first blush, it would appear that none but the truly weird would find these two new volumes … compulsive late-night page-turners.” But I joined him in the company of the weird by marking all the references that could be construed as religious. I began at the outer limits with what I call the “sacral penumbra” of nondescript and rather noncommittal incidental references. (These do not include the more frequent and clear references in the sustained arguments discussed later in this essay.) My marker found three favorites: at least 30 “Heavens,” as in “merciful Heaven,” and 15 or 20 “blessings of heaven”; there were 15 usually casual “sacreds,” as in “sacred liberties.” God comes up often, but almost never in biblical terms; “God,” we remember, was generic for deists and theists, philosophers and believers alike. In one instance in this collection, one John Smilie quotes the Declaration of Independence on the Creator. Beyond that, in these two lengthy volumes there are about 20 references to God, while the Almighty and the Creator make single cameo appearances. We read at least seven times of Providence; the Supremes are here four times, as in Supreme Being and Supreme Ruler of the Universe; Lord, as in “O Lord!” or “the Year of Our Lord,” turns up six times, and there is a Sovereign Ruler of Events, one Grace, two Governors (of the World and the Universe),two Nature’s Gods, and, for good measure, one Goddess of Liberty. Whether the general absence of the biblical God is intentional or reflects the habits of the Enlightenment, it is significant.

On one occasion, vox populi is identified with vox dei, a questionable theological concept, to be sure. Once, people are called “the sole governours (under God),” and I spotted another “under God” in connection with George Washington. Writers also refer to “the immutable laws of God and ” reason,” and “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” The citation of the Bible as authority is extremely rare. Once Benjamin Rush deals abstractly with “reason and revelation,” and John Dickinson cites Holy Scriptures on perfect liberty and speaks of “the inspired Apostle Saint Paul.” The latter is one of the most charged references in the two volumes; Dickinson uses I Corinthians 12 on the body of Christ as an analogy for “the benefits of union” in the republic. As for human nature, only once do. I recall spotting the word “sin.” Calvin’s God was far back in the wings in this Enlightenment-era discourse.

For a people putatively schooled in scripture, these arguers use relatively few biblical allusions. I counted three references to Moses. In Noah Webster’s citation, Moses gets paired with Fohi and Confucius, Zamolxis and Odin and other “fabled demi-gods of antiquty” In another citation Moses joins Montesquieu as a representative genius. There are other casual allusions to the Bible, but they are slight and quickly dropped.

Terribly slim pickings, these. While practical politics was the preoccupation of these debaters, they were debating what was deepest in the people’s minds and hearts. Consequently, it seems strange that I found only one reference to Christology or Christian salvation: the “blood of the Redeemer.” “John Humble,” speaking for “the low born,” at one point makes fun of “the perfection of this evangelical constitution” and its claimed place “in the salvation of America,” but that language does not advance the case for seeing America as a Christian country. One would hardly know from these collected documents that Americans were churchgoers; I caught them at church in only one casual allusion. Denominations are rarely mentioned, though Quakers are visible, chiefly as pacifists. Pelatiah Webster of Philadelphia defends “Quakers, Mennonists, Moravians, and several other sects scrupulous against war” from charges that they are “enemies to liberty and the rights of mankind.

“The clergy are almost invisible; once there is a minister of the gospel; once, some are “reverend”; and clergy march in place in a Maryland ratification parade. Did I overlook more than the one reference I found to “pastor,” and the one to “theologian,” as in “the close reasoning of the theologian,” in lawyer Simeon Baldwin’s speech?

Are the American people chosen? James Winthrop thought so, but that is about it (1:764). Unless my snooping eye missed some references, Americans were Christians. only once in 2,387 pages — in Baldwin’s oration at New Haven on July 4, where hearers were asked “to discharge our duty to our God, our country and ourselves, like true patriots and benevolent Christians.” Historian David Ramsay wrote to South Carolinians to “consider the-people of all the thirteen states, as a band of brethren, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, inhabiting one undivided country, and designed by heaven to be one people,” but the religion is unspecified. As for devotion, there is a reference to one’s “prayer to God,” but we 20th-century folk hear more such talk in a single presidential inaugural address.

The established religion of England gets mentioned ten or 20 times, in every case negatively, though George Mason once neutrally quotes the Book of Common Prayer. The founders allude to creeds once or twice but do not quote them from church history; Athanasius appears once, and we read of heretics. There is little anti-Catholicism in these almost entirely non-Catholic writings. Remember, these folks are arguing for ratification and are not eager to make religious enemies.

The founders were aware of what James Madison called “various and irreconcilable . : . doctrines of Religion” (1:746), and they were occasionally alert to world religions. This was especially true of Noah Webster, who states that the Alcoran of the Muslims is not likely to become the American “rule of faith and practice.” There is an awareness of old Roman augury and priesthood, back when legislators “derived much of their power from the influence,of religion, or from that implicit belief which an ignorant and,superstitious people entertain of the gods, and their interposition in every transaction of life.” But in modern North America such behavior would be incredible and impossible (1:154-56).

One of the most serious issues in constitutional discourse was the virtue of the people, since constitutional law would be effective only if citizens respected it. Pelatiah Webster of Philadelphia was the most explicit concerning people’s response to the divine when he wrote about congressmen: Another mighty influence to the noblest principle of action will be the fear of God before their eyes; for while they sit in the place of God, to give law, justice, and right to the States, they must be monsters indeed if they do not regard his law and imitate his character.

James Madison, however, balances Webster in a letter to Thomas Jefferson about possible restraints of majorities who might persecute minorities: Religion. The inefficacy of this restraint on individuals is well known. The conduct of every popular Assembly, acting on oath, the strongest of religious ties, shews that individuals join without remorse in acts against which their consciences would revolt, if proposed to them separately in their closets. When indeed religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude. But enthusiasm is only a temporary state of Religion, and whilst it lasts will hardly be seen with pleasure at the helm. Even in its coolest state, it has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it.

The most sustained religious discussion in these huge volumes has to do with the line in Article VI of the Constitution that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Luther Martin, a fierce opponent of ratification, reported that the “no religious test” clause easily had passed at Philadelphia, but went on sarcastically:

However, there were some members so unfashionable as to think that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that in a Christian country it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.

The most notable New England Baptist, Isaac Backus, opposed such a test, stating that “no man or men can impose any religious test, without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ.” William Williams, a Connecticut signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in the American Mercury that he wished the clause could have been omitted, and even would have liked to have voted for its reverse, “to require an explicit acknowledgment of the being of a God, his perfections and his providence,” and an italicized affirmation of God in the preamble to the Constitution. Williams says he knows that such a phrase would have produced hypocrites and have provided no security, but he wished it were there simply as a public testimony.

On the other hand, Oliver Ellsworth takes three pages to defend the Article VI clause as not being “unfavourable to religion.” It was designed “to exclude persecution” and to secure “the important right of religious liberty.” English law and practice show the evils that would threaten were the clause not here. “A test in favour of any one denomination of Christians would be to the last degree absurd in the United States.” Even a test-act that required officeholders to declare “their belief in the being of a God, and in the divine authority of the scriptures,” would not have satisfied, since it is easy to dissemble. “If we mean to have those appointed to public offices who are sincere friends to religion; we the people who appoint them, must take care to choose such characters; and not rely upon such cob-web barriers as test-laws are.

“Henry Abbott and James Iredell returned to the issue in a report from the North Carolina Convention. Abbott stated that some feared that without religious tests, “Pagans, Deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us,” and that legislators might some day “all be Pagans.” Without religious texts, would oaths of office be taken “by Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Proserpine or Pluto”? Iredell responded, referring to the “dreadful mischiefs” and “utmost cruelties” that had occurred “under the colour of religious texts” throughout history. America had already chosen a more modest, reasonable and tolerant course. Iredell asks, “How is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for?” But he concludes, “It is never to be supposed that the people of America will trust their dearest rights to persons who have no religion at all, or a religion materially different from their own.” Let religion be permitted to take its own course; “the divine author of our religion never wished for its support by worldly authority.

After the “religious tests” debates, the most significant treatment of religion occurred in debates having to do with pluralism, “the multiplicity of sects,” republicanism and religious freedom. Most of the suspicious antifederalists were pushing for a Bill of Rights, while the federalists, feeling that rights had been assured in the unamended Constitution, opposed it.

In Virginia, where Patrick Henry favored what is now called nonpreferential support, a quasi-establishment, James Madison, his opponent, argued that a Bill of Rights “declaring that religion should be secure” was unnecessary. Because of the presence of what Madison called a “multiplicity of sects” Americans had freedom of religion, and that was “the best and only security for religious liberty in any society.

“Z,” replying to Benjamin Franklin in Boston, did argue that there had to be an express reservation of “inherent unalienable rights,” for example, “in case the government should have in their heads a predilection for any one sect in religion? … [and for] erecting a national system of religion?” (1:7). Tench Coxe in Philadelphia enumerated all the sects that had come to America for the sake of freedom of religion, and noted that they brought with them dispositions to other freedorns in matters of government. The anonymous “Federal Farmer” in letters to “The Republican” joined in: “It is true, we are not disposed to differ much, at present, about religion; but when we are making a constitution, it is to be hoped, for ages and millions yet unborn, why not establish the free exercise of religion, as a part of the national compact.”

The “multiplicity of sects” theme came to prominence in Madison’s Federalist Papers X and LI. These are more a celebration of religious diversity than of religion, since Madison seems nervous about religion’s power to tyrannize. Still arguing for a large federal republic, Madison returned to the theme in Federalist LI,.where wariness about religious power is checked by celebration of diversity:

In a free government, the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other, in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government.

In the event, the United States in 1789 added a Bill of Rights including the religion clause to the Constitution, and the nation became the large republic with many sects that Madison foresaw and wanted. The philosophy behind the religion clause derived from the Madisonian-Jeffersonian Virginian resolution, copied also by North Carolina:

20th. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience, and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by law in preferrence [sic] to others.

I will not have discharged my self-chosen duties successfully without referring to two passages by notable founders that throw special if idiosyncratic light on religion. One is by the renowned Philadelphia physician and constitutionalist Benjamin Rush. In a 1787 speech at the Pennsylvania Convention reported on in the Pennsylvania Herald two days later, he awakened furies by arguing that ratification was divinely mandated. The other offbeat entry is Benjamin Franklin’s speech at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, September 17, 1787, the document which opens Bailyn’s two-volume collection and frames some of what follows. He did not entirely approve of the Constitution, he said, and pleaded for modesty. The aged sage still had wit:

Most Men indeed as well as most Sects in Religion, think themselves in Possession of all Truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far Error. Steele, a Protestant, in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the- only difference between our two Churches in their Opinions of the Certainty of their Doctrine, is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the Wrong.

After antifederalist riots at Carlisle, Franklin returned to the scene with a satire against the rioters, comparing them to the ancient Jews who rejected a constitution handed down by God and “recorded in the most faithful of all Histories, the Holy Bible.” There followed four pages of reference to biblical history (Exodus and Numbers), after which Franklin concluded that he did not want to be thought of as arguing that the General Convention was similarly divinely inspired:

Yet I must own I have so much Faith in the general Government of the world by Providence, that I can hardly conceive a transaction of such momentous Importance to the Welfare of Millions now existing, and to exist in the Posterity of a great Nation, should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influenc’d, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent, and beneficent Ruler, in whom all inferior Spirits live, and move, and have their Being.

One could never be too sure from Franklin’s language where he stood, .and the same is the case with other major figures like Jefferson or Madison. It was Madison who reflected most on ambiguity, obscurity, cornplexity, the equivocal, and the noncopiousness of language. He also cast the problem against a transcendent backdrop: ‘ “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful, by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” .

My reading of 2,387 pages of “cloudy medium” may have clouded things more. It’s clear, at any rate, that religious references in these primal republican political debates were rare and vague. In addition, almost no one found it easy to speak of a Christian republic or to offer a consistent theological rationale of constitutionalism. The few sustained debates about “religious tests” and “religious freedom” treated the potential for religious monopolies, hegemonies or majorities-and even religion itself-as a problem. Finally, the Madisonian devotion to pluralism won out over attempts to legislate metaphysical or theological solutions or to privilege particular traditions.

The two volumes confirm the idea that the founders’ practical politics displaced and left little room for sustained discussion of the metaphysical, metaethical and theological backdrop to constitutionalism. The debates occurred at a time when there was enough Enlightenment talk about “Nature’s God” to compromise evangelical talk about the God of the Bible in the affairs of the United States. When one contrasts outcomes in the United States with those in Europe, one is tempted to conclude that the “godless” Constitution and the reticent constitutionalists helped make possible a “godly” people.

The evangelicalization of American culture, then, did not derive from the constitutional period but from the times that followed, times of revivalism and immigration. It was not 1776 or 1787-89 but the period that followed which led Jon Butler to see Americans Awash in a Sea of Faith, Nathan Hatch to write of The Democratization of American Religion, me to write of the Protestant experience as an advocacy of a Righteous Empire , Robert Handy to describe A Christian America and Mark A. Noll, Nathan 0. Hatch and George M. Marsden to observe and criticize The Search for Christian America.

The language of the constitutional debates was, like that of the Almighty, in Madison’s view, “rendered dim and doubtful, by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” Bailyn’s triumph of editing and publishing The Debate on the Constitution communicates that aspect of language brightly and without doubt.

http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=182

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict. This article appeared in The Christian Century March 23-30, l994, pp 316-327. Copyrighted by TheChristian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.

So You Think You Know the Second Amendment?

by Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker, December 18, 2012

Does the Second Amendment prevent Congress from passing gun-control laws? The question, which is suddenly pressing, in light of the reaction to the school massacre in Newtown, is rooted in politics as much as law.

For more than a hundred years, the answer was clear, even if the words of the amendment itself were not. The text of the amendment is divided into two clauses and is, as a whole, ungrammatical: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The courts had found that the first part, the “militia clause,” trumped the second part, the “bear arms” clause. In other words, according to the Supreme Court, and the lower courts as well, the amendment conferred on state militias a right to bear arms—but did not give individuals a right to own or carry a weapon.

Enter the modern National Rifle Association. Before the nineteen-seventies, the N.R.A. had been devoted mostly to non-political issues, like gun safety. But a coup d’état at the group’s annual convention in 1977 brought a group of committed political conservatives to power—as part of the leading edge of the new, more rightward-leaning Republican Party. (Jill Lepore recounted this history in a recent piece for The New Yorker.) The new group pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms. It was an uphill struggle. At first, their views were widely scorned. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who was no liberal, mocked the individual-rights theory of the amendment as “a fraud.”

But the N.R.A. kept pushing—and there’s a lesson here. Conservatives often embrace “originalism,” the idea that the meaning of the Constitution was fixed when it was ratified, in 1787. They mock the so-called liberal idea of a “living” constitution, whose meaning changes with the values of the country at large. But there is no better example of the living Constitution than the conservative re-casting of the Second Amendment in the last few decades of the twentieth century. (Reva Siegel, of Yale Law School, elaborates on this point in a brilliant article.)

The re-interpretation of the Second Amendment was an elaborate and brilliantly executed political operation, inside and outside of government. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 brought a gun-rights enthusiast to the White House. At the same time, Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, became chairman of an important subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he commissioned a report that claimed to find “clear—and long lost—proof that the second amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms.” The N.R.A. began commissioning academic studies aimed at proving the same conclusion. An outré constitutional theory, rejected even by the establishment of the Republican Party, evolved, through brute political force, into the conservative conventional wisdom.

And so, eventually, this theory became the law of the land. In District of Columbia v. Heller, decided in 2008, the Supreme Court embraced the individual-rights view of the Second Amendment. It was a triumph above all for Justice Antonin Scalia, the author of the opinion, but it required him to craft a thoroughly political compromise. In the eighteenth century, militias were proto-military operations, and their members had to obtain the best military hardware of the day. But Scalia could not create, in the twenty-first century, an individual right to contemporary military weapons—like tanks and Stinger missiles. In light of this, Scalia conjured a rule that said D.C. could not ban handguns because “handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defense in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.”

So the government cannot ban handguns, but it can ban other weapons—like, say, an assault rifle—or so it appears. The full meaning of the court’s Heller opinion is still up for grabs. But it is clear that the scope of the Second Amendment will be determined as much by politics as by the law. The courts will respond to public pressure—as they did by moving to the right on gun control in the last thirty years. And if legislators, responding to their constituents, sense a mandate for new restrictions on guns, the courts will find a way to uphold them. The battle over gun control is not just one of individual votes in Congress, but of a continuing clash of ideas, backed by political power. In other words, the law of the Second Amendment is not settled; no law, not even the Constitution, ever is.

Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty.
Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2012/12/jeffrey-toobin-second-amendment.html?printable=true&currentPage=all#ixzz2FQCSfzPS

In Public ‘Conversation’ on Guns, a Rhetorical Shift

By NATE SILVER, December 14, 2012

Friday’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., has already touched off a heated political debate. Opponents of stricter regulation on gun ownership have accused their adversaries of politicizing a tragedy. Advocates of more sweeping gun control measures have argued that the Connecticut shootings are a demonstration that laxer gun laws can have dire consequences. Let me sidestep the debate to pose a different question: How often are Americans talking about public policy toward guns? And what language are they using to frame their arguments?

There is, of course, no way to monitor the conversations that take place in living rooms around the country. But we can measure the frequency with which phrases related to gun policy are used by the news media.

If the news coverage is any guide, there has been a change of tone in recent years in the public conversation about guns. The two-word phrase “gun control” is being used considerably less often than it was 10 or 20 years ago. But the phrase “gun rights” is being used more often. And the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is being invoked more frequently in the discussion.

In the chart below, I’ve tracked the number of news articles that used the terms “gun control,” “gun rights,” “gun violence” and “Second Amendment” in American newspapers, according to the database NewsLibrary.com. (Because the number of articles in the database changes over time, the figures are normalized to reflect the overall volume of database coverage in any given year, with the numbers representing how often the gun-related phrases were used per 1,000 articles on any subject.)

The usage of all four phrases, but particularly the term “gun control,” has been subject to sharp but temporary shifts based on news events.

In 1993 and 1994, when Congress was debating a ban on assault weapons, the phrase “gun control” was used about three times per 1,000 news articles. Use of the term was even higher after the mass shootings in Columbine, Colo., peaking at 3.7 instances per 1,000 articles in 1999. It reached a low point in 2010, when the term “gun control” was used 0.3 times per 1,000 articles — less than one-tenth as often as in the year after the Columbine shootings.

Averaging the frequency of usage over a five-year period reduces the effect of these news-driven fluctuations and reveals a reasonably clear long-term trend. In recent years, the term “gun control” has been used only about half as often as it was in the 1980s and about one-quarter as often as in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But other phrases related to gun policy have become more common in news coverage.

The term “Second Amendment” was rarely employed in the 1980s, but it has become much more commonplace since then. (Since 2008, the term “Second Amendment” has been used more often than “gun control.”) A related phrase, “gun rights,” has also come into more common usage.

The term “gun violence” peaked in 1999, the year of the Columbine shootings. But it has also been on a long-term increase. Since 2010, it has been used 0.33 times per 1,000 news articles — far more often than during the 1980s, when it was invoked 0.02 times per 1,000 articles.

The change in rhetoric may reflect the increasing polarization in the debate over gun policy. “Gun control,” a relatively neutral term, has been used less and less often. But more politically charged phrases, like “gun violence” and “gun rights,” have become more common. Those who advocate greater restrictions on gun ownership may have determined that their most persuasive argument is to talk about the consequences of increased access to guns — as opposed to the weedy debate about what rights the Second Amendment may or may not convey to gun owners. For opponents of stricter gun laws, the debate has increasingly become one about Constitutional protections. Certainly, many opponents of gun control measures also argue that efforts to restrict gun ownership could backfire in various ways or will otherwise fail to reduce violence. But broadly speaking, they would prefer that the debate be about what they see as Constitutional rights, rather than the utilitarian consequences of gun control measures.

Their strategy may have been working. The polling evidence suggests that the public has gone from tending to back stricter gun control policies to a more ambiguous position in recent years. There may be some voters who think that the Constitution provides broad latitude to own and carry guns – even if the consequences can sometimes be tragic.

http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/in-public-conversation-on-guns-a-rhetorical-shift/?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121215

How the Right Has Twisted the 2nd Amendment

Consortium News [1] / By Robert Parry [2] December 15, 2012

The American Right is fond of putting itself inside the minds of America’s Founders and intuiting what was their “original intent” in writing the U.S. Constitution and its early additions, like the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms.” But, surely, James Madison and the others weren’t envisioning people with modern weapons mowing down children in a movie theater or a shopping mall or now a kindergarten.

Indeed, when the Second Amendment was passed in the First Congress as part of the Bill of Rights, firearms were single-shot mechanisms that took time to load and reload. It was also clear that Madison and the others viewed the “right to bear arms” in the context of “a well-regulated militia” to defend communities from massacres, not as a means to enable such massacres.

The Second Amendment reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Thus, the point of the Second Amendment is to ensure “security,” not undermine it.

The massacre of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday, which followed other gun massacres in towns and cities across the country, represents the opposite of “security.” And it is time that Americans of all political persuasions recognize that protecting this kind of mass killing was not what the Founders had in mind.

However, over the past several decades, self-interested right-wing “scholarship” has sought to reinvent the Framers as free-market, government-hating ideologues, though the key authors of the U.S. Constitution – people like James Madison and George Washington – could best be described as pragmatic nationalists who favored effective governance.

In 1787, led by Madison and Washington, the Constitutional Convention scrapped the Articles of Confederation, which had enshrined the states as “sovereign” and had made the federal government a “league of friendship” with few powers.

What happened behind closed doors in Philadelphia was a reversal of the system that governed the United States from 1777 to 1787. The laws of the federal government were made supreme and its powers were dramatically strengthened, so much so that a movement of Anti-Federalists fought bitterly to block ratification.

In the political maneuvering to assure approval of the new system, Madison and other Federalists agreed to add a Bill of Rights to ease some of the fears about what Anti-Federalists regarded as the unbridled powers of the central government. [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative [3].]

Madison had considered a Bill of Rights unnecessary because the Constitution, like all constitutions, set limits on the government’s power and it contained no provisions allowing the government to infringe on basic liberties of the people. But he assented to spell out those rights in the first 10 amendments, which were passed by the First Congress and ratified in 1791.

The intent of the Second Amendment was clarified during the Second Congress when the U.S. government enacted the Militia Acts, which mandated that all white males of military age obtain a musket, shot and other equipment for service in militias.

The idea was to enable the young country to resist aggression from European powers, to confront Native American tribes on the frontier and to put down internal rebellions, including slave revolts. There was nothing particularly idealistic in this provision; the goal was the “security” of the young nation.

However, the modern American Right and today’s arms industry have devoted enormous resources to twisting the Framers into extremist ideologues who put “liberties” like individual gun ownership ahead of all practical concerns about “security.”

This propaganda has proved so successful that many politicians who favor common-sense gun control are deemed violators of the Framers’ original intent, as essentially un-American, and face defeat in elections. The current right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has even overturned longstanding precedents and reinterpreted the Second Amendment as granting rights of individual gun ownership.

But does anyone really believe that Madison and like-minded Framers would have stood by and let deranged killers mow down civilians, including children, by using guns vastly more lethal than any that existed in the Revolutionary era? If someone had wielded a single-shot musket or pistol in 1791, the person might get off one volley but would then have to reload. No one had repeat-firing revolvers, let alone assault rifles with large magazines of bullets.

Any serious scholarship on the Framers would conclude that they were, first and foremost, pragmatists determined to protect the hard-won independence of the United States. When the states’-rights Articles of Confederation wasn’t doing the job, they scrapped it. When compromises were needed – even on the vile practice of slavery – the Framers cut the deals.

While the Framers cared about liberty (at least for white men), they focused in the Constitution on practicality, creating a flexible system that would advance the “general Welfare” of “We the People.”

It is madness to think that the Framers would have mutely accepted the slaughter of kindergarteners and grade-school kids (or the thousands of other American victims of gun violence). Such bloody insecurity was definitely not their “original intent.”

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/how-right-has-twisted-2nd-amendment

Links:
[1] http://www.consortiumnews.com
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/robert-parry
[3] https://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/1868/t/12126/shop/shop.jsp?storefront_KEY=1037
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/2nd-amendment
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/connecticut
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/sandy-hook
[7] http://www.alternet.org/tags/shooting-0
[8] http://www.alternet.org/tags/security-0
[9] http://www.alternet.org/tags/safety-0
[10] http://www.alternet.org/tags/protection
[11] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

Ron Paul’s Farewell Speech in Congress Lays Bare His Hatred for “Pure Democracy,” and Love of Oligarchy

Consortium News [1] / By Robert Parry [2] November 28, 2012  |

Rep. Ron Paul, an icon to the libertarian Right and to some on the anti-war Left, gave a farewell address to Congress that expressed his neo-Confederate interpretation of the Constitution and his anti-historical view of the supposedly good old days of laissez-faire capitalism.

In a near-hour-long rambling speech [3] on Nov. 14, Paul also revealed himself to be an opponent of “pure democracy” because government by the people and for the people tends to infringe on the “liberty” of businessmen who, in Paul’s ideal world, should be allowed to do pretty much whatever they want to the less privileged.

In Paul’s version of history, the United States lost its way at the advent of the Progressive Era about a century ago. “The majority of Americans and many government officials agreed that sacrificing some liberty was necessary to carry out what some claimed to be ‘progressive’ ideas,” said the 77-year-old Texas Republican. “Pure democracy became acceptable.”

Before then, everything was working just fine, in Paul’s view. But the reality was anything but wonderful for the vast majority of Americans. A century ago, women were denied the vote by law and many non-white males were denied the vote in practice. Uppity blacks were frequently lynched.

The surviving Native Americans were confined to oppressive reservations at the end of a long process of genocide. Conditions weren’t much better for the white working class. Many factory workers toiled 12-hour days and six-day weeks in very dangerous conditions, and union organizers were targeted for reprisals and sometimes death.

For small businessmen, life was treacherous, too, with the big monopolistic trusts overcharging for key services and with periodic panics on Wall Street rippling out across the country in bank failures, bankruptcies and foreclosures.

Meanwhile, obscenely rich Robber Barons, like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, personally controlled much of the nation’s economy and manipulated the political process through bribery. They were the ones who owned the real “liberty.”

It took the Great Depression and its mass suffering to finally convince most Americans “that sacrificing some liberty was necessary,” in Paul’s curious phrasing, for them to gain a living wage, a measure of security and a little respect.

So, under President Franklin Roosevelt, laws were changed to shield working Americans from the worst predations of the super-rich. Labor standards were enacted; unions were protected; regulations were imposed on Wall Street; and the nation’s banks were made more secure to protect the savings of depositors.

Many social injustices also were addressed during Ron Paul’s dreaded last century. Women got the vote and their position in the country gradually improved, as it did for blacks and other minorities with the belated enforcement of the equal rights provisions of the 14th Amendment and passage of civil rights legislation.

The reforms from the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the post-World War II era also contributed to a more equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth, making the United States a richer and stronger country. The reforms, initiated by the federal government, essentially created the Great American Middle Class.

Paul’s Complaint

But in Paul’s view, the reformers should have left things the way they were – and he blames the reforms for today’s problems, although how exactly they’re connected is not made clear.

Paul said: “Some complain that my arguments make no sense, since great wealth and the standard of living improved for many Americans over the last 100 years, even with these new policies. But the damage to the market economy, and the currency, has been insidious and steady.

“It took a long time to consume our wealth, destroy the currency and undermine productivity and get our financial obligations to a point of no return. Confidence sometimes lasts longer than deserved. Most of our wealth today depends on debt.

“The wealth that we enjoyed and seemed to be endless, allowed concern for the principle of a free society to be neglected. As long as most people believed the material abundance would last forever, worrying about protecting a competitive productive economy and individual liberty seemed unnecessary.”

But Paul’s blaming “progressive” reforms of the last century for the nation’s current economic mess lacks any logic, more a rhetorical trick than a rational argument, a sophistry that holds that because one thing happened and then some bad things happened, the first thing must have caused the other things.

The reality is much different. Without Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Era and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the direction of America’s capitalist system was toward disaster, not prosperity. Plus, the only meaningful “liberty” was that of a small number of oligarchs looting the nation’s wealth. (It would make more sense to blame the current debt problem on the overreach of U.S. imperialism, the rush to “free trade,” the unwise relaxing of economic regulations, and massive tax cuts for the rich.)

Besides his reactionary fondness for the Gilded Age, Paul also embraces an anti-historical attitude toward the Founding Era. He claimed that the Constitution failed not only because of the 20th Century’s shift toward “pure democracy” but because of a loss of moral virtue among the populace.

“Our Constitution, which was intended to limit government power and abuse, has failed,” Paul said. “The Founders warned that a free society depends on a virtuous and moral people. The current crisis reflects that their concerns were justified.”

However, there’s no compelling evidence that people were more moral in 1787 or in 1912 than they are today. Indeed, one could argue that many slave-owning Founders were far less moral than Americans are now, a time when tolerance of racial, gender and other differences is much greater.

And as for the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pious morality of the Robber Barons included the cruel exploitation of their workers, the flaunting of obscene wealth amid widespread poverty, and the routine bribery of politicians. How that measures up to moral superiority is a mystery.

In his speech, Paul declared that “a society that boos or ridicules the Golden Rule is not a moral society,” but many of the Founders and the Robber Barons did not follow the Golden Rule either. They inflicted on others great pain and suffering that they would not want for themselves.

Misreading the Constitution

Paul’s historical incoherence extends to what the Framers were doing with the Constitution. He argues that they were seeking “to limit government” in 1787 when they drafted the Constitution. But that was not their primary intent. The Framers were creating a strong and vibrant central government to replace the weak and ineffective one that existed under the Articles of Confederation.

Of course, by definition, all constitutions set limits on the power of governments. That’s what constitutions do and the U.S. Constitution is no exception. However, if the Framers wanted a weak central government and strong states’ rights, they would not have scrapped the Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States from 1777 to 1787. The Articles made the states “independent” and “sovereign” and left the federal government as a supplicant.

The key point, which Paul and other right-wingers seek to obscure about the Constitution, is that it granted broad powers to the central government along with the mandate to address the nation’s “general Welfare.”

The key Framers of the Constitution, particularly George Washington and James Madison, were pragmatists who understood that a strong and effective central government was necessary to protect the independence of a large and sprawling nation. For that reason, they recognized that the Articles had been a failure, preventing the 13 states from functioning as a cohesive nation. Indeed, the Articles didn’t even recognize the United States as a government, but rather as a “league of friendship.”

General Washington, in particular, hated the Articles because they had left his Continental Army begging individual states for supplies during the Revolutionary War. And after the hard-won independence, Washington saw European powers exploiting the divisions among the states and regions to whittle away that independence.

The whole American enterprise was threatened by the principle of states’ rights because national coordination was made almost impossible. It was that recognition which led Madison, with Washington’s firm support, to seek first to amend the Articles and ultimately to throw them out.

When Madison was trying to get Virginia’s endorsement of an amendment to give the federal government power to regulate commerce, Washington wrote: “the proposition in my opinion is so self evident that I confess I am at a loss to discover wherein lies the weight of the objection to the measure.

“We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be.” [For more on this background, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative [4].]

On to Philadelphia

After Madison was stymied on his commerce proposal in the Virginia legislature, he and Washington turned their attention to a convention that was technically supposed to propose changes to the Articles of Confederation but, in secrecy, chose to dump them entirely.

When the convention convened in Philadelphia in spring 1787, it was significant that on the first day of substantive debate, there was Madison’s idea of the federal government regulating commerce.

As the Constitution took shape – and the Convention spelled out the sweeping “enumerated powers” to be granted to Congress – Madison’s Commerce Clause was near the top, right after the power to tax, to pay debts, to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare,” and to borrow money – and even above the power to declare war. Yes, the Right’s despised Commerce Clause, which was the legal basis for many reforms of the 20th Century, was among the “enumerated powers” in Article 1, Section 8.

And gone was language from the Articles of Confederation that had declared the states “sovereign” and “independent.” Under the Constitution, federal law was supreme and the laws of the states could be stricken down by the federal courts.

Immediately, the supporters of the old system recognized what had happened. As dissidents from the Pennsylvania delegation wrote: “We dissent … because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government.”

A movement of Anti-Federalists arose, led by the likes of Patrick Henry, to defeat the Constitution. They organized strong opposition in the states’ ratifying conventions of 1788 but ultimately lost, after winning the concession from Madison to enact of Bill of Rights during the first Congress.

The inclusion of the Tenth Amendment, which reserves for the states and the people powers that the Constitution does not give to the federal government, is the primary hook upon which the modern Right hangs its tri-corner hat of anti-federal ideology.

But the amendment was essentially a sop to the Anti-Federalists with little real meaning because the Constitution had already granted broad powers to the federal government and stripped the states of their earlier dominance.

Remaking Madison

The Right’s “scholars” also make much of a few quotes from Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 45, in which he sought to play down how radical a transformation, from state to federal power, he had engineered in the Constitution. Rather than view this essay in context, the Right seizes on Madison’s rhetorical attempts to deflect the alarmist Anti-Federalist attacks by claiming that some of the Constitution’s federal powers were already in the Articles of Confederation, albeit in a far weaker form.

In Federalist Paper No. 45, entitled “The Alleged Danger From the Powers of the Union to the State Governments Considered,” Madison wrote: “If the new Constitution be examined with accuracy, it will be found that the change which it proposes consists much less in the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union, than in the invigoration of its ORIGINAL POWERS.” Today’s Right also trumpets Madison’s summation, that “the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”

But it should be obvious that Madison is finessing his opposition. Whether or not some shadow of these federal powers existed in the Articles of Confederation, they were dramatically enhanced by the Constitution. In No. 45, Madison even plays down his prized Commerce Clause, acknowledging that “The regulation of commerce, it is true, is a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained.”

However, in Federalist Paper No. 14, Madison made clear how useful the Commerce Clause could be as he envisioned national construction projects.

“[T]he union will be daily facilitated by new improvements,” Madison wrote. “Roads will everywhere be shortened, and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout the whole extent of the Thirteen States.

“The communication between the western and Atlantic districts, and between different parts of each, will be rendered more and more easy by those numerous canals with which the beneficence of nature has intersected our country, and which art finds it so little difficult to connect and complete.”

Founding Pragmatism

The Framers also understood that the country would not remain locked in a late 18th Century world. Though they could not anticipate all the changes that would arise over more than two centuries, they incorporated broad powers in the Constitution so the country through its elected representatives could adapt to those times.

The true genius of the Framers was their pragmatism, both for good and ill, in the cause of protecting American independence and unity. On the for-ill side, many representatives in Philadelphia recognized the evils of slavery but accepted a compromise allowing the states to count African-American slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation in Congress.

On the for-good side, the Framers recognized that the American system could not work without a strong central government with the power to enforce national standards, so they created one. They transferred national sovereignty from the 13 “independent” states to “We the people.” And they gave the central government the authority to provide for the “general Welfare.”

Yet, the fight over America’s founding principles didn’t end with the Constitution’s ratification in 1788. Faced with a growing emancipation movement – and losing ground to the industrial North – the Southern slave states challenged the power of the federal government to impose its laws on the states. President Andrew Jackson fought back against Southern “nullification” of federal law in 1832 and the issue of federal supremacy was fought out in blood during the Civil War from 1861-65.

Even after the Civil War, powerful regional and economic forces resisted the imposition of federal law, whether intended to benefit freed slaves or to regulate industry. In the latter third of the 19th Century, as Jim Crow laws turned blacks into second-class citizens, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan created industrial monopolies that rode roughshod over working-class Americans.

For different reasons, the South’s agrarian oligarchs and the North’s industrial oligarchs wanted the federal government to stay out of their affairs – and they largely succeeded by wielding immense political power until the 20th Century.

Then, in the face of widespread abuses, President Theodore Roosevelt went after the “trusts,” President Franklin Roosevelt responded to the Great Depression with the New Deal, and post-World War II presidents and federal courts began the process of overturning racial segregation.

The Right’s Emergence

In reaction to those changes – federal regulation of the economy and rejection of overt racial discrimination –the modern American Right emerged as a sometimes uneasy coalition between the “free-marketeers” and the neo-Confederates, sharing a mutual hatred of modern liberalism.

Those two groups also drew in other constituencies harboring resentments against liberals, such as the Christian Right – angered over Supreme Court prohibitions on compulsory prayers in public schools and abortion rights for women – and war hawks, drawn from the ranks of military contractors and neoconservative ideologues.

These right-wing movements recognized the importance of propaganda and thus – in the 1970s – began investing heavily in an infrastructure of think tanks and ideological media that would develop supportive narratives and disseminate those storylines to the American people.

It was especially important to convince Americans that the New Deal and federal interference in “states’ rights” were a violation of the Founders’ core principles. Thus, the Right could pretend that it was standing up for the U.S. Constitution and the Left was out of step with American “liberty.”

So, right-wing “scholars” transformed the purpose of the Constitutional Convention and recreated James Madison in particular. Under the Right’s revisionist history, the Constitution was drafted to constrain the power of the federal government and to ensure the supremacy of states’ rights. A few Madison quotes were cherry-picked from the Federalist Papers and the significance of the Tenth Amendment was exaggerated.

The success of the pseudo-history can’t be overstated. From the Tea Party, which arose in angry determination to “take back our country” from the first African-American president, to the hip libertarians who turned the quirky Ron Paul into a cult figure, there was a certainty that they were channeling the true vision of the American Founders.

A large segment of the American Left also embraced Ron Paul because his ideology included a rejection of imperial military adventures and a disdain for government intrusion into personal lives (although he is a devout “right-to-lifer” who would deny women the right to have an abortion).

Paul’s mix of libertarianism and anti-imperialism has proven especially attractive to young white men. He is viewed by some as a principled prophet, predicting chaos because the nation has deviated from the supposed path of “liberty.”

However, as his farewell address revealed, his ideology is a jumble of anti-historical claims and emotional appeals. For instance, he posed unserious questions like “Why can’t Americans decide which type of light bulbs they can buy?” – apparently oblivious to the need for energy conservation and the threat of global warming.

In the end, Ron Paul comes across as little more than a political crank whose few good ideas are overwhelmed by his neo-Confederate thinking and his sophistry about the inherent value of free-market economics.

See more stories tagged with:

ron paul [5],

liberatarian [6],

farewell address [7],

laissez-faire capitalism [8],

confederate [9]


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/tea-party-and-right/ron-pauls-farewell-speech-congress-lays-bare-his-hatred-pure-democracy-and-love

Links:
[1] http://www.consortiumnews.com
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/robert-parry
[3] http://www.campaignforliberty.org/national-blog/transcript-of-farewell-address/
[4] http://www.neckdeepbook.com/
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/ron-paul
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/liberatarian
[7] http://www.alternet.org/tags/farewell-address
[8] http://www.alternet.org/tags/laissez-faire-capitalism
[9] http://www.alternet.org/tags/confederate
[10] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

 

Grover Norquist, Enemy of the State?

AlterNet [1] / By Thom Hartmann [2]  November 26, 2012

Excerpt

Is it possible that Grover Norquist, the multi-millionaire K-Street lobbyist long funded by billionaires, is an enemy of the state?…he has connived over the years to get hundreds of members of Congress to violate their own oath of office by pledging a higher oath to keep billionaires’ taxes low than their pledge to the Constitution itself….

And the Constitution, to which they take the Modern Oath, explicitly says that Congress has the explicit power to impose taxes, both to pay for our defense and to provide for the General Welfare of the nation…So, how is it possible that, when the Constitution explicitly says that one of the specific jobs of Congress is to “lay and collect taxes,” and the oath they take explicitly says that they take will do so “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion,” that a member of Congress could possibly swear an oath to a multimillionaire K-Street lobbyist to refuse to perform one of their Constitutional duties?

…Is not a man who essentially uses threats – blackmail – that billionaire money will be used to politically destroy members of Congress who refuse to sign his pledge an enemy of the state itself – or at least an enemy of the very Constitution that lawmakers have sworn to uphold without mental reservation or evasion?

Grover Norquist has led hundreds of Republican lawmakers to the brink of treason, swearing to him that they will carry into office mental reservations about the taxation power the Constitution gives them.  It’s high time to de-throne Grover, and let Congress go back to doing its Constitutionally-mandated  job of taking care of the nation’s defense and general welfare, instead of just looking out for the nation’s defense contractors and cranky billionaires.

Full text

Is it possible that Grover Norquist, the multi-millionaire K-Street lobbyist long funded by billionaires, is an enemy of the state?

Pretty strong language, but consider that he has connived over the years to get hundreds of members of Congress to violate their own oath of office by pledging a higher oath to keep billionaires’ taxes low than their pledge to the Constitution itself. 

The requirement for Members of Congress to swear an oath to our country is in the Constitution itself, in Article Six:  “The Senators and Representatives … shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution…”

So, starting with the first Congress, in 1789, members were sworn in by saying, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.”

But during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln supported, and Congress passed on July 2nd, 1862, legislation requiring an oath that added that members of Congress had not previously engaged in any “criminal or disloyal conduct,” which would have included pledging loyalty to the Confederacy.  It was called the “Ironclad Test Oath,” and was designed to keep Confederate sympathizers out of Congress.  If a member swore it, and it was discovered he’d previously violated it by swearing an oath to the Confederacy, he would be prosecuted for perjury.

After the Civil War, that oath was replaced with one that didn’t specifically exclude former members of the Confederacy, but still required members to pledge an oath, first and foremost, to the Constitution.  Now called the “Modern Oath,” it was enacted in 1884 and is used to this day.  Its first sentence says:  “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion;…”

And the Constitution, to which they take the Modern Oath, explicitly says that Congress has the explicit power to impose taxes, both to pay for our defense and to provide for the General Welfare of the nation.  The very first sentence of Article One, Section Eight, says: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States;…”

So, how is it possible that, when the Constitution explicitly says that one of the specific jobs of Congress is to “lay and collect taxes,” and the oath they take explicitly says that they take will do so “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion,” that a member of Congress could possibly swear an oath to a multimillionaire K-Street lobbyist to refuse to perform one of their Constitutional duties?

And what sort of member of Congress would willingly swear an oath to a front man for a small group of billionaires, that that member of Congress would violate the oath he or she swore to follow the Constitution without “mental reservations” or “purpose of evasion”?  Is not a man who essentially uses threats – blackmail – that billionaire money will be used to politically destroy members of Congress who refuse to sign his pledge an enemy of the state itself – or at least an enemy of the very Constitution that lawmakers have sworn to upholdwithout mental reservation or evasion?

Grover Norquist has led hundreds of Republican lawmakers to the brink of treason, swearing to him that they will carry into office mental reservations about the taxation power the Constitution gives them.  It’s high time to de-throne Grover, and let Congress go back to doing its Constitutionally-mandated  job of taking care of the nation’s defense and general welfare, instead of just looking out for the nation’s defense contractors and cranky billionaires.

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/grover-norquist-enemy-state

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/thom-hartmann
[3] http://www.alternet.org/tags/taxes-0
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/norquist
[5] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B