America’s Failing Democracy

Lest there be any doubt, at the forefront of the American Revolution were American merchants who were primarily interested in protecting their right to run their business as they saw fit.  Paul Revere was a silversmith, John Hancock was a merchant whose interest lay in shipping.  Thomas Jefferson was a tobacco farmer, among other trades.  Samuel Adams was a tax collector, John Adams a lawyer, and Benjamin Franklin a printer, writer, philosopher, and scientist.  None, save Samuel Adams, was particularly interested in going to war with Britain in 1775.  They, and their peers, favored amelioration over confrontation.  But when confrontation came, as those same people feared it would, to a man they claimed taxation without representation to be tyranny.  When the war ended in 1783, all returned to their former business.  The first government, the Continental Congress, assembled without the aid of a single of those men, their attentions returned to business, as they understood it.

The Constitution was written entirely with business in mind.  No issues reinforces this point than the fact that the issue a slavery, condemned by most who designed the Constitution, purposely left the issue out knowing that no state from Virginia southward would accept the prohibition of that institution.  The reason was simple, the southern economy heavily relied upon the institution of slavery to keep the cotton and tobacco plantations viable, at least in the minds of those in that business.  The idiosyncrasy of the constitution was such that even though 75% of the American population lived north of slavery, nearly 50% of the states needed to ratify it were a party to slavery, and that meant, quite simply, with 9 states needed to ratify, at least half of those slave states would have to vote for it.

For the most part, ideals of democracy state that the majority rules, but America put a twist to certain of its law-making ideas, a 2/3 vote was necessary for not just the ratification of the Constitution, but for any changes, amendments, to it.  The stated idea behind this was the protection of the less populated states of being consistently overruled but the more populous states.  This is also seen in each state be apportioned 2 senators, regardless of population.  But even so, from a purely democratic point of view, America was not a democracy but a republic with democratic tendencies.  These principles work quite well as long as the will of the people, a shared sentiment of the founding fathers, is always at the base of our legal system.  And our legal system, a set of rules and regulations, states how we conduct ourselves as a republic.  But that republic was formed at a time when the agrarian economy ruled supreme, and all other forms of business, shipping, smelting, and service, existed only to serve the farmer.

Maybe we can blame the Irish and Ely Whitney for the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one.  Whitney’s cotton gin ended the hand cleaning of cotton, and the Irish invented the mechanized loom which ended the cottage industry of cloth manufacture.  And we could probably blame Francis Cabot Lowell, with his theft of the design of the power loom, using a man with a photographic memory to see first-hand how the English power looms worked and bring that design to America.

The mechanization of the textile industry quickly spread to the burgeoning Massachusetts shoe industry.  The industrial revolution was on, and America’s agrarian past gave way to invention and mechanization that continued until 1929 when the stock market crash brought the American economy to its knees.  But during those 100 years America had to come to grips with industrialization and all its problems.  The first strike of any sort occurred in 1834 Massachusetts when a group of women struck, not for better wages, but better working conditions.  They won.  But it was another 35 years before the idea of unionizing labor came to reality with the founding of the Knights of Labor.  The Knights, for the first time, pitted worker, in an organized manner, against management.  The Knights, however, were inherently weak and seldom won any of their strikes.  Their core belief that any strike must include all members of a certain trade, and not just those dissatisfied with a particular employer.

Until 1912, the American industrialist had had its way.  During those 80 plus years of industrialization, the industrial leaders had learned how of impose their will upon the Congress of the United States.  The textile industrial had been able the get congress to enact import duties that restricted the ability of foreign competitors in the American marketplace.  They also were able to have rules of trade put in place so that American cotton growers and sheep farmers could only sell to American mills and make any sort of profit.

In the period of 1912 – 1920, it was basically the American slum which brought an end to the vice grip exerted by industrialists upon labor.  Minimum wage laws, child labor laws, and the length of workday, created what we know today as the American middle class.  Starting with the Theodore Roosevelt administration and continuing through the Carter administration, the American government passed law after law regulating every American industry.  The industrialists of 1912, largely unregulated, were so wealthy that today’s billionaires, Gates and Koch, pale in comparison.

One of the more noticeable effects of government regulation of industry were the safety issues enacted to protect that industry’s workers.  In the ensuing decades, with the introduction of such agencies as the Food and Drug Administration, the safety of the public was the focus of regulation.  Today, save commercial aviation, no industry is more heavily regulated.  But that wasn’t always true.  In 1929, when the stock market crashed, the federal government realized that the conduct of the American economy started in its banks and other financial institutions.  In 1929 the number of people involved in the stock market was extremely small, but the repercussions of its failure were inflicted on all Americans without exception.  Even those Americans who had wisely invested or secured themselves, found the relative value greatly reduced.  It was only the second time the financial systems of the United States were radically changes, the institution of the Federal Reserve System in 1913 being the first.

When the banks started failing in 1929 and 1930, average Americans ran to their bank to remove their funds only to find that these same banks had been a party to the financial meltdown and did not have their funds.  The Roosevelt administration set up the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to insure that all deposited funds would be guaranteed by the full force of the federal government.  With that corporation congress enacted a series of laws and regulations that spelled out exactly how financial transactions would happen.

In the 1930s when the cost of labor in the north was high, the northern textile mills closed and moved to the south where far cheaper labor existed.  Other American industries, reigning supreme on the world’s markets, survived through their might in those world markets.  Other countries made everything the United States but no one produced as much, and in some respects, foreign manufacturers were of inferior quality.  But World War 2 ended all that.

By the 1970s the traditional American heavy industries, steel and automobiles, could no longer compete on an even basis on the world markets.  The American industrialist’s response to this was to shut down his American operations and either move overseas or invest in foreign manufacture.  To maximize their profits they paid their lobbyists to get congress to change American trade laws.  They argued that to compete in the world’s markets we had to open American markets to all comers and to do so without the imposition of tariffs.  But it was always a hollow claim as American production of textiles, steel, automobiles, and most other industries, fell.  Imports to the American market quickly outstripped exports and such has been true for over 40 years now.

And this brings us back to the issue of capitalism versus democracy.  Democracy states that the will of the people must remain supreme at all times.  By extension, and common sense, the will of the people is that Americans experience as low a rate of unemployment as is reasonably possible.  But it would probably surprise most Americans to find out that the real rate of unemployment in American today, 2013, is closer to 20% than the 8% claimed.  That is simply because the American rate of unemployment is arrived at by counting the number of Americans receiving unemployment checks.  It does not count the chronically unemployed, the homeless, those who rely entire upon welfare and other forms of public assistance for their income.

Until the early 1980s, the American labor union was the working man’s hedge against noncompliant employers.  But on August 3, 1981, President Ronald Reagan decertified PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, claiming public safety, he signaled industrialists that the weight of the government was in their corner.  To be fair, labor unions were weakened by their own corruption.  But all unions have been so weakened that in a blatant anti-union move,
the governor of Wisconsin removed public employees’ unions’ right to collective bargaining.  According to the Cornell school of law: “Collective bargaining consists of negotiations between an employer and a group of employees so as to determine the conditions of employment. The result of collective bargaining procedures is a collective agreement.”  This had traditionally been the very basic element of all unions.  But in a move by a single man, the will of thousands of people was co-opted for political expediency.

Today, Americans are the best educated of any generation.  And yet the average American finds little comfort in the promise that the will of the people will be affirmed.  Gun control legislation, a hot button issue in America today, never sees the floor of congress even though it is the will of upwards of 80% of the people that tighter controls exist.  Why is this?  Powerful and extremely smart lobbyists exert power over enough of congress to insure the issue is not even discussed on the floor of congress.  And this is true of countless other issues where extremely strong and well-fund lobbies assure the will of the PAC will rule over the will of the people.  It is easy for liberals to point to strong conservative lobbies and claim malfeasance but liberal PACs achieve the same results the same way as their conservative counterparts.  And in the end, the will of the people is nullified by the will of the well-placed and the well-financed.

What Americans must become can be stated in a single world, pragmatic.  By definition: “of or pertaining to a practical point of view or practical considerations.”  The founders of our country, those who spelled out our special version of democracy, were quite pragmatic and equally adept at compromise.  It is a fact that our political leadership today is adept at neither and that is a blatant attack of what little democracy we have left.


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