Democracy Understood

Sometimes, what we want to be true and what actually is true do not intersect.

What we want to believe in, in America, is that we live in a democracy – meaning, to most of us, that there is an ideal to which we adhere: that  “all men are created equal,”  and that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights…” That is, at least, what I grew up understanding “democracy” to be.

But what seems to be more true is that we live in a capitalistic society – in which all people are not created equal, nor should anyone expect that to be the case.

Of course, when the Declaration of Independence was written, as well as the Bill of Rights and the United States Constitution, the words “all men” meant white, landowning men. The framers of our precious document never intended for the phrase to be understood as one that included people of all nationalities and/or races, nor did they intend for it to include women. “We the people”  did not include what was then and what would become the vast populace of this country. The boundaries of race, class and gender were set up from the very beginning of the life of this nation.

As time passed, we idealized our founding documents, and we decided that the phrase “all men are created equal” meant that the Founding Fathers had a love for “all people.” On that basis, the downtrodden decided that according to our Constitution, they had the same rights as anybody and everybody else. This was America, where everyone was free, or was at least supposed to be.

The stark contradiction between our idealization of the words of the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, however, was there from the beginning.  Slavery was an American reality, and in spite of a horrible Civil War fought, a war which accounted for more American deaths than any modern war, nobody really wanted them to be “free,” and certainly, nobody believed black slaves to be “equal” to whites. President Abraham Lincoln, though he freed some of the slaves, particularly those who lived in the South who were needed to help fight for the Union, never thought they were equal to whites, nor did he think black people, slave or free, should have the same rights as white people.

Enter capitalism. The right to be “free” was based in capitalistic theory from the beginning, it seems. The wealthy landowners had the power from the beginning, and to them, “freedom” was the ability to make money! That’s why people want to flock to America; our free enterprise system means, theoretically, that “anyone” can make it here. The prevailing thought seems to be that if you are down and out, then it is somehow your own doing.

That just is not true. As I have watched our country in this current economic crisis, and read about how the country fared during the years (and afterward) of the Great Depression, it has become increasingly clear that the capitalistic system is constructed to protect the monied class. “Too big to fail,” though distasteful, seems to be a part of capitalistic ideology. It feels like America’s economy is graded on a curve, much like exams I took in college were graded. In a curve, some will fail. It’s built into the system. What used to be true in America is that there were a fair amount of people “in the middle” who could make it, and the number of the very rich was small, proportionately.

Now, however, that middle section of people is getting smaller and smaller, while the number of very rich and poor to very poor is getting larger.

That is the way a capitalistic system works.

The tension between the “haves” and “have nots” has been a standard reality in America. President Franklin D. Roosevelt fought for the common people during his presidency, and he had a pretty broad swath of support at the beginning; the country was in such dire straits that even big business let him have his way in shaping the New Deal. FDR knew that in order for a capitalistic system to work, its people had to work so that they could make money and spend money.

But after a while, big business grew uneasy as big government, acting on a democratic principle that “all people” should be able to work and make a good living wage, spent money in order to create programs for literally millions of people.

Big business, people who understand capitalism and how it works, are not all that concerned with millions of people making a living wage. I would imagine  they would say “it’s not personal. It’s business.”

If we understand that we live in a capitalistocracy as opposed to an ideally defined democracy, we might not stew as much as we do about the economics of these days. The arguments back in FDR’s days – the need to balance the budget, cut government spending, lower taxes …were the same as they are now. FDR fought against what he believed to be economic policy which adversely affected the masses of American people, but he knew that he was making big business angry.

Perhaps the most telling statement about this country, and what it is, came from President Calvin Coolidge, who said,”The business of America is business.”

That sums it up fairly nicely and succinctly, does it not?

As I understand what America is, the relationship between big business and big government, I seem to pause. I realize that not only I but a vast number of people have been confused about this word “democracy.” We are not supposed to be a nation where everybody can make it, and if they cannot, can be assured that the government will stand in the breach.

I get it now.

A candid observation…