Where Has America Gone?

I went to graduate school to study U.S. History. I have always wondered how we, as a country, have gotten to where we are. I still wonder that but at least now I have a good working knowledge of the forces which brought us to this day. I have a deep appreciation of George Santayana’s words: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I, like so many Americans today, look upon our Congress as the most dysfunctional body imaginable. The present Congress in its dysfunctionality is not, in my opinion the worst ever. That honor, if you will, belongs to the various Congresses which presided during our Civil War of 1861 to 1865. Both major parties where so horribly splintered it is amazing they ever agreed upon anything. It was only a few years earlier, 1856, when Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the senate floor, literally with his cane, beating him so badly he required medical attention. Brooks was ostensibly defending the honor of Sen. Andrew Butler whom Sumner had earlier called an “imbecile.” For his actions Brooks was fined $300.

It is of note that members of Congress in the 19th century were seldom millionaires although most were from well-to-do families. They were elected because they espoused the desires of their constituency and, as in the case of Brooks, were willing to literally fight for those desires. Brooks was incensed over the personal verbal attack abolitionist Sumner made on Butler by saying, “Senator Butler has chosen a mistress. I mean the harlot, slavery.”  These men were obviously and heatedly devoted to those causes important to their state.  Sadly, I do not believe such can be said for any member of Congress today.

Every American has 3 representatives in Congress, two senators and a representative.  But if someone were to ask me what any of those three people has done for my state, Massachusetts, lately, I quite honestly could not say a thing.  I simply do not know even though I do my best to remain informed.

At its inception the United States could easily have broken apart into 13 separate countries.  After all, each state had long before adopted its own constitution, set up its own form of democratic elections, and put together a fully and independently functional state government.  But by 1783 the colonies had come to realize the value of coalescing into a single and strong central government.  Still, they were bitterly divided upon what that government would look like and how each state could maintain a reasonable level of autonomy within the structure of a federal government.  To that end they decided on an election process which provided for the possibility of a complete turnover of the federal government at 6 year intervals.

That process was designed prior to political action committees, huge and rich corporations, and even, yes, political parties.  Thomas Jefferson believed that their need only be a single party made up of the “wise and well-born.”  But Jefferson actually oversaw that exact change when he departed from the Federalist party line, with which he greatly disagreed, and stated the Democratic Republicans.  He realized that Virginia’s needs were frequently at odds with those of Massachusetts or New York.  The original fight over state autonomy versus federal regulation continued until 1868 and the adoption of the 14th Amendment which, in part, bars states from enacting laws contrary to federal law.  At that time states fought jealously to preserve the general good and well-being of the residents of their state.  They did this through those elected to Congress.

At the beginning of the 20th Century politicians who were called “Populists” saw well-moneyed interests exerting control of the US Government to the detriment of the individual citizen.  Industrialists like Vanderbilt had lobbied and secured eminent domain so they could gain control of otherwise privately owned property.  Rockefeller who was able to gain monopolistic control of the fledgling oil industry, Carnegie the same in the steel industry and other “tycoons” of the day.  Congress enacted anti-trust laws, monopoly laws and in 1934 the Securities and Exchange Commission.  It took well over 30 years but Congress properly recognized that corporate America had systematically diluted the power of the individual American for its own use.

From 1900 until 1980 Congress and the President did an excellent job of insuring that the rights of the individual American were not trampled on by a few powerful interests.  But when Ronald Reagan became President the executive and legislative elements of our government began undoing all the work of the previous 80 years.  Reagan used sleight of hand by breaking up the communications monopoly AT&T had created while his real agenda was something entirely different.  Reagan started the charge against the average working man when he successfully oversaw busting the air traffic controllers union.  It was an entirely unnecessary action as the power of the president has always allowed for his ending a strike when he believed the national interest and the national defense were at issue.  Previous presidents had used this power to end lengthy coal miners’ strikes for example.  But none ever considered breaking up a union as this would have been viewed as un-American.  He effectively declared open season on America’s unions even though the power of all unions was lessening and the frequency of strikes decreasing.

He then took aim at the federal regulatory process, in particular financial interests.  He declared that such institutions were too heavily regulated and unnecessarily regulated, that they were self-regulating by their very nature and in their own interest.  This gives rise to the question of why the stock market crash on 1987 happened.  Is it possible that the sudden deregulation had gone contrary to the public good?  Congress ostensibly righted that ship by putting in place laws which would limit or stop stock trading should the market give signs of being in a free-fall.  But the deregulation continued.

Since 1980 control of the Congress has switched between the Republicans and Democrats many times.  But they have increasingly shown an inability to come to a consensus of compelling domestic and foreign issues, not the least of which is the regulation of the giant conglomerates existing in the United States today.  While America’s infrastructure deteriorates at an alarming speed, Congress is having a food fight over taxes, entitlements, and defense.

No state and nor individual, conservative or liberal, is benefiting from the actions of today’s Congress.  If individual members of Congress were truly interested in the welfare of their constituents, they would be figuring out how many multiple trillions of dollars it will take to bring our infrastructure back to where it should be rather than allowing it to continue where it where it is.  Such an investment would of course greatly benefit corporate America but unfortunately they are totally devoted to their own selfish interests.  Every year corporate America spends literally billions of dollars lobbing Congress to do their bidding while trampling on the rights of private Americans.  For example, the energy industry has long touted how “clean” burning natural gas is while failing to reveal that in reality from its mining to its burning natural gas actually hurts the environment more than coal!  But who has more money to spend on lobbying, environmentalists or the energy industry?  The energy industry has done such a great job of championing their cause that they have been able to get local environmentalists to do their bidding, vis-à-vis closing coal burning electric generating plants.  It would be fine if they actually maintained the 3% pollution rate they claim rather than the 16% reality.

Starting around 2006 and continuing for the next 5 years the foreclosure rate in American sky-rocked mostly because of a mostly unregulated banking industry which allowed sub-prime loans to people who had little idea of the agreement they had entered into.  Worse, these very same large financial institutions were making bets on the success or failure of marginal investments.  It came to light that these institutions were cooking the books, so to speak, to justify what they did.  First came Enron, then Morgan Stanley, then Shearson, and so on.  A few failed but most were propped up thanks to the federal government, “too big to fail” was the war cry.  Why did it happen?  Deficient regulation and oversight.

Sadly, while all this was happening, Congress was kowtowing to the moneyed interests which got them elected while to some extent, if not completely, ignoring the welfare of the individual American.  Democrats and Republicans had obfuscated their duty to the individual American rather than anger the PACs which got them elected.

At this point I should come up with a solution.  Sadly, I do not have one short of saying America needs to toss out everyone who now populate Congress and put in new people.  That is not going to happen but something akin to it needs to happen.  Today’s members seem to feed on being antagonism and lack either the will or ability to come to any sort of an understanding with their adversary, they seem to believe that maintaining an adversarial relationship is the recipe for political success.  They use that very negative adversarial and contentious mood to invigorate those who voted them into office.  They sell it as acting in their constituents’ best interest when nothing could be further from the truth.  Members of Congress keep their attention focused on the next election and how they will get re-elected while subordinating the needs of those they represent.  Congress has become adept at selling Americans a ticket to hell and having those same Americans out beating the bushes for directions.

I fear for the future of my children and grandchildren, it seems very bleak right now.  I fear the America my ancestors fought and died for has been purchased by corporate America and that future governance is being decided in America’s boardrooms rather than America’s living rooms.  America is in desperate need of a revolution, a revolution that will empower them and put them back in control of their future.


One thought on “Where Has America Gone?

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever read a post by a U.S. History major. I enjoyed it!
    I’ve read a lot of books by professional historians, but didn’t have any classes myself past high school.

    I do agree with you that people make grand generalizations about “worst evers” which turn out to be “worst example contrary to my own political position”. People prefer to believe they live in important times, at the apex of world-shaping events. A hundred years after they die, historians will characterize their times with less biased perception. But lots of people live their entire lives during the plateaus and declines of empires, misunderstanding that the importance of your own life and the times you live through aren’t equivalent.

    I like to add my own continuation on the end of Santayana’s thought. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and so are those who DO remember, because they are stuck on the same planet with all those who don’t.

    Perhaps history repeats (in cycles) because while technology advances, the human psyche doesn’t change at all. We all live with the identical range of emotions, desires and drives as our Cro-Magnon ancestors.

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