Taking Heart after the 2014 Elections (Guest Voice)
Taking Heart after the 2014 Elections
by Craig Barnes
November 12, 2014
When we set the date for this talk we knew that we would be searching for wisdom shortly after the elections. We also foresaw that we would probably be dealing with significant losses for progressives. Since November 4th, probably everyone in this room has been mulling the likely consequences, from the probable ratification of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, to deregulating financial institutions, to approving the pipeline that is to carry tar sands oil from Canada to Texas. On a number of these issues it is unlikely that president Obama will hold firm or defend the progressive positions.
All this is quite depressing. But it is more depressing in the short run than it is in the long run. In the 200-year medium range we can take some encouragement. And then again, in the very long run, it could be even more depressing. We will have to come back to the very long run in a minute.
Let’s walk through this.
One way to look at the cultural conflicts going on in the United States today is to see that some large proportion of the country continues to resist the advances of the last 200 years. The battle, therefore, is between those who believe in the advances and those who would like to go back to some earlier, simpler age. In a word, the great conservative sweep of this last November 4 is the dying cry of conservatism, hoping to continue the reign of men, guns, agricultural power and religious exclusion. Unbeknownst to the majority of us, a small number hope to reinstate, or better said, to reinforce the growing new aristocracy.
First, let’s look at the progress of democracy since the formation of this country and notice what today’s aristocrats are up against:
When the first Congress assembled in 1791, neither women, nor slaves, nor males without property, could vote. Jews were largely excluded from politics. Muslims were disparaged, demeaned and Native Americans were called “savages.” Gays, if they were known, were shunned, ostracized, and as a result completely excluded from public life. Same-sex marriage was unheard of. Interracial marriage was banned almost everywhere, (a ban not fully repealed until a decision by the Supreme Court in 1967). Child labor was routine in mines and laundries and sweatshops. Health laws of general application did not exist.
In 1804, Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel, defending his honor. Honor was a big deal. Throughout the 19th century lynchings were a common method of law enforcement beyond the eye of the law, especially in the West and the South. The law against dueling did not stop Aaron Burr and the laws against lynching were ignored.
Similarly, the concept of “labor” did not exist. Unions did not exist.
Through the course of the last two centuries, battles have raged over these very issues. Substantial victories have been won but they have not come easily and because they cut so deep there is still great opposition. And that is the battle that we witnessed in the November 4 elections, still going on.
While a large national majority voted for a black president in 2008 and 2012 the resistance evidenced in the attacks on his birth certificate and religious conviction, and use of the filibuster in the United States Senate, were not just from kooks and a few naysayers. The same prejudice that justified the slavery before the Civil War lies under the surface of American culture today and a major part of the battle of the 2014 elections was led by white males who still do not see black people as competent or entitled to leadership. Still, having said that, it must be understood, that it was the terrific progress that had been made in 2008 and 2012 that gave life to the hostile reaction in 2014. In the larger picture, therefore, while this last election is terribly depressing, we ought not lose sight of the progress between 1789 and 2008.
Some battles have been won, but not all have been one completely. This is the case for women, as well as African-Americans. When Hillary Clinton runs for president we will see flaming attacks against her, disguised as questions of competence after Benghazi, or lack of guts not to divorce Bill, or whatever, and all these will simply mask the struggle that has been going on since the Trojan war in 1220 BCE to keep women sequestered, as chattel in the back rooms, away from power. This attitude persists, but we would be blind to deny the fact that for most of our history, and most of human history, a woman as president of the greatest military power on earth has been unthinkable. Those few other women who come to mind, like Catherine the Great, or the Medicis of Florence and France were never elected, and it is the possibility of actually electing a woman to such power that is progress.
The progress of women into public affairs and corporate leadership in the last 50 years has been stunning. In 1220 BCE Helen of Troy chose to divorce an old king and marry a young prince and caused a great war between formerly matrilineal and newly patriarchal societies. It was the undoing of an old civilization and the beginning of a new one, creating a story that we have an inherited with its huge residual prejudices. That story lives on.
The losses of Wendy Davis in Texas, Michelle Nunn in Georgia, and Kay Hagan in North Carolina, are evidence that even after 3200 years the battle is not won. But in 2016 we will have the chance, the very real possibility, to witness the same kind of breakthrough that we experienced in 2008. Then a black man broke through; this time a woman might also do it. Such a possibility could not have been imagined by Anne Hutchinson who was banished from Boston in the 1650s because she chose to interpret the Bible in her own way, or Martha Washington in the 18th century, or even Eleanor Roosevelt in the early 20th century. This morning’s Wall Street Journal presents a graph of female CEOs and the growing numbers of women as directors of their companies. It is a short list, but no such list existed 50 years ago.
As Hillary’s campaign will show, the wistful, conservative, let’s-get-back-to-the-old-days caucus is still fighting. In the 19th century elitists and aristocrats were disturbed by the arrival of Irish and Italians. Today they are disturbed by the arrival of Latinos and Muslims. Jews did not do so well in American politics in the 19th century, either. The first Jewish justice was not appointed to the Supreme Court until the 20th century. The first Catholic ran for president in 1928. Today the appointment of Jews and Catholics to the court and as candidates for the presidency is entirely accepted; the Irish and Italians play leading roles in American politics, Latinos are becoming a voting block of great significance and Muslims are beginning to emerge into the mainstream media.
Pistol duels at twenty paces, between men of honor are a thing of the past. Lynchings either of cattle rustlers or African-Americans are a thing of the past. If Helen of Troy were to run away today with her new found prince she would no doubt be applauded and be on the cover of People Magazine rather than be the cause of a cultural Civil War.
The point is of course very simple. The threads of these battles run throughout history and they are not won or lost in a single election or even perhaps in a single century. These last elections are the most recent example; white males dominated the elections; white males were elected to the Senate in campaigns against women in North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky. But the fact that women are making a battle of it and that a woman will make a supreme effort in the 2016 is a sign of a change underway, unthinkable even 100 years ago.
While, therefore, we are tempted to wallow in despair, we ought also to notice that the resurgence of the conservative right wing in our country in the last 30 years is a response to the progress of the last 200 years; it is the ongoing mossback resistance to progressive change. Over the course of 200 years conservatives have been losing. Women are gaining; people of color are gaining; outsiders like Latinos and Muslims are gaining; gays and lesbians are gaining. It is in response to these gains that we have experienced the backlash and, yes, backlash is real and powerful. But the tide of human rights is the cause of this uprising and not all the rural votes, not all the votes of disappointed men, not all the money in the world has been able to stop the rising tide. The conservative alliance has most definitely won this last round. But they won in large part because women, Latinos, young people, and unionists in this midterm did not vote. When they do vote, if they do, and as they are more likely to do in a presidential election year, the conservative backlash will be contested and the tide over the long run is not with them.
That is the part of the story from which we can take hope. That is the mid-range story. In the last 250 years human rights and democracy have made great strides. And when women, Latinos, young people, and unionists realize that they are all being oppressed by one plutocracy, one laissez-faire ideology, one anti-science, anti-compassion, purely materialistic non-spiritual rejection of human values, they are more likely to find common cause and the progressive strides will continue.
I did say, however, that there was another very-long-term story that is not so good.
Corporations have now been established under the Constitution as persons. In 1791, they were not persons. The few corporations that existed were established for limited periods to build a covered bridge or college building, etc., and then they went out of business. Today, by contrast, corporate decisions to drill for gas in southeast and northwest New Mexico, lay waste forests in Brazil, poison rivers in Ecuador, infect crops with GMOs from the Midwest to India, are decisions that ignore national boundaries, elude democratic control, and are made largely in secret. Corporations can spend unlimited sums of money to dominate most governments in the world including the United States, and they have perpetual existence. These “persons” will therefore outlive any president, congress, judge, or actual human being. With enduring power, virtually unrestrained, unconstrained by death, never facing the need to reorganize and adapt to death, corporations have today become the dominant form of governance in the world. The corporate institution, a figment of law, has grown to be more muscular, less moral, and more in control of our politics, our economy, and our physical well-being than any of the institutions created by the new American Constitution in the 18th century.
The corporate innovation has created aristocracies of wealth much more difficult to control than the old aristocracies of land that characterized the kingdoms of most of human history. In the days before the American and French, or even the Russian, revolutions, the aristocrats could all be found; they were on the great estates with castles and palaces. Today, by contrast, the aristocratic homes may be hidden in the Hamptons on ten acres rather than ten thousand. The landlord does not work his land or direct his farm hands and today’s American workers would not have a clue where to find the aristocrats who are profiting from their labor. Today’s owners may live in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, totally out of sight of the American, or Indian, or Chinese workers whose labor is creating their wealth. Against whom, residing where, can such workers gather in protest?
In this 21st century world, inequality has created aristocracies mimicking the domains of medieval kings. The difference is that these aristocracies are largely secret. Inequality was of course already a problem in 1791 when the first American government assembled, but today aristocracy threatens democracy even more than then. Today, 400 persons own as much wealth as 150 million other Americans. The Walton family, by itself, numbering only six members, owns as much wealth as 100 million Americans. The resultant inequality has produced a class of Americans who dominate healthcare and climate change debates, promote voter suppression, and justify themselves as hard-working, innovative “makers,” unlike the takers who in their minds are at least half of the nation.
Democracy cannot survive this level of inequality. The billions of dollars that were channeled into the 2014 elections on behalf of those candidates who would take us back to the Gilded Age, before minimum-wage, before anti-discrimination laws, before Social Security, before pollution controls, before mass participation in elections, probably came from less than 500 contributors.
The enduring bad news, therefore, is that the current structure of corporate governance and obeisance to laissez-faire capitalism will work inexorably to increase inequality and thereby increase the desperate challenge that this level of inequality brings to democracy. Thomas Piketty’s new book Capitalism in the 21st Century is the most comprehensive historic analysis of capitalism of which I am aware. Beginning at the time of the French Revolution, drawing on records in France from that time, slowly gathering records from Great Britain, the continent, and the United States, Piketty demonstrates that, without regulation, the returns to inherited wealth always grow faster than the returns to workers, or labor, or those who live by daily wages. The great 20th century breakthroughs on behalf of equality, the leveling efforts of the 20th century, occurred after massive destructions of capital in the first and second world wars. The result was a brief narrowing of wealth gaps. According to Piketty’s analysis, however, without government regulation there is nothing within laissez-faire capitalism that is self-correcting. The wealth gap will continue to increase and enhance the power of the aristocrats. That power rose to new heights in these last elections.
In conclusion, on the one hand the desperate conservative sweep in these last elections is in response to significant changes enhancing human rights over the last 200+ years. In that long run the aristocracy has been losing.
On the other hand we now face an institutional challenge in a new form of government, corporate government, largely invisible, largely secret, largely transnational, subject to no national allegiance, that threatens democracy in all its forms. There appears to be no attitudinal difference between the oligarchs who have captured Russian wealth and the oligarchs of American wealth who are quite willing to move their companies to tax havens, to Dubai, to the Cayman Islands, or to any place where democracy does not exist and they don’t pay taxes.
We are all materialistic. It is not just the oligarchs. But we are all also spiritual, compassionate, and to some degree interested in the common good without which no one of us individuals can survive. The laissez-faire ideology of the aristocrats is wrong. No one is alone. Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan and John Roberts who think that the free market gives the right to abandon the search for the common good, for equal dignity, compassion, and opportunity, are wrong. Our need to take care of each other and work together is genetic. It comes with the human package. Everything of any significance that we have ever done, from the Roman aqueducts, to the first printing press, to the combustion engine and the iPhone, the construction of skyscrapers and airplanes that defy gravity, we have done through the efforts millions of educators, inventors, loving parents, engineers, lawyers, and ancient moral codes accumulated over thousands of years. No one person could have ever done any of this and anyone who abandons the common good, or the need to work together, is simply delusional.
It is this inborn capacity for compassion and collaboration in us all that allows us in these despairing days after the November 2014 elections to do as Archibald McLeish counseled JB, to blow on the coals of the heart. We will do this because it makes us whole as humans. We will do this because wholeness—internal congruence—is the source of our strength. We will do this because, since Sappho in the seventh century B.C.E., this is what leaders of the spirit have always done. We will do this because congruence internally is the source of congruence socially, and because congruence is ultimately the source of moral authority, and because moral authority is in the end the source of all power.
Craig Barnes is the author of Democracy At The Crossroads, Princes, Peasants, Poets and Presidents Struggle for (and against) the Rule of Law. His website is www.craigbarnes.com
election graphic via shutterstock.com