Is it ironic that in the second decade of the 21st century we are still debating equality in a country where all are supposed to be political equals? In the 18th century, the equality debate concerned the rights of colonists. In the 19th century the debate erupted into civil war over slavery, followed in the 20th over suffrage, and in the 21st the battlefield is economic equality, a societal battle over the rights of money over the rights of citizens as embodied in the destructive sophistry of the 2010 Citizens United decision.
Earlier equality debates have not been resolved either as there is always someone with a new twist seeking to undermine what should be settled law. Racism, sexual orientation, religion, bigotry, and mysogny are unrelenting, persistent, and tragically reinvented daily. It’s a curse, this agon, this quest for equality. Not so long ago Southern European immigrants were persecuted presently it’s Muslims and migrants fleeing economic and political oppression. It has always been blacks; next week it will be someone else. Truth is, if every person of color were to disappear tomorrow morning a new target group would be found by nightfall. While discrimination on the basis of wealth isn’t new on the list of divisive social issues it has now become critical when so many are unemployed, underemployed, or simply dropped out including college graduates laden with debt who cannot find employment.
Hedge fund managers making $24 million annually are taxed at 15% while truck drivers who earn $43 thousand a year are taxed at 28% the tax burden thus falls to working class people. In Kansas budget shortfalls will be made up with increased sales taxes and fees paid mainly by the working middle class and poor. A non-partisan policy group says the poorest 20 percent of the state will now pay 1.5 percent more in taxes than they did in 2012. or an average of $197 a year. The Governor, Sam Brownback, in a classic Orwellian trope, told the press this isn’t an increase but a tax cut. “I think we’re in Wonderland, Aunti Em.”
When wealth is gained at the expense of the majority of the members of a society, social viability becomes the paramount question. Historically such has been the prelude to one sort of revolution or another and some think we may be on the precipice of a foundational evolutionary social reformation. Sentiments go well beyond the numerous books recently published about economic inequality and Capitalism. Petitions are being circulated calling for a constitutional amendment to nullify the obviously biased Citizens United decision. The presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren and others are also speaking to larger more fundamental deeply felt issues.
The realities of a diminished, if not extinguished, democracy are denial and negation of truth. Neither propaganda nor appeals to patriotism can make this go away because there is no alternative to inequality but equality. There is no livable alternate reality when 33 American cities already have or are planning to make feeding hungry people illegal. The casual abandonment of moral consideration is truly remarkable.
In an analysis of federal policy initiatives dating from 1981 to 2002 researchers at Princeton concluded, “ … 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.” The denial and destruction of a government of, by, and for the people, is the antithesis of a democratic society paving an inevitable path to disengagement, and ultimately – dissolution. We can fairly ask as we must, how is it possible for a society to maintain a non-democratic economic system, qua religion, conflated with a barely functioning social contract? It is inarguable that a civilized society must correct those inequalities which can be corrected to provide the economic and social capital necessary to minimize inequalities of economic opportunity and political access.
Democracy as a political and social system requires equity, sharing, and engagement. Democracy is an expression of distribution and inclusion – capitalism is accumulation and exclusion. Capitalism is fundamentally a winner take all zero sum game, it has no ethic or morality other than to take it all is opposed to the sharing ethic required for a viable democratic civil society. Capitalism being finite and material has a natural end point – democracy being politically and socially aspirational does not, its horizon is indeterminate. In the absence of equal economic justice there is no possibility of a viable democratic social contract. As Adam Smith cautioned in his 1776 classic, The Wealth Of Nations: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
The United States has been engaged in one war or another for 222 out of the past 239 years. Since 1776 we have also been at war with ourselves. Is this then the ongoing American agon? We must decide.