By the People?

By A. G. Moore

States rights. Entitlements. Nanny state. Wealth redistribution. These are buzzwords of conservatives. This word cloud colors every aspect of what passes for debate in the national dialogue. The subtext implicit in these catchphrases is an appeal to liberty, to individual freedom.

There is, I believe, a generic consistency in the character of people who call themselves Americans. Whether we are first generation citizens or our ancestors’ blood nourished the roots of the American Revolution, the people of the United States have a common provenance: in the history of each of us exists the story of a person who left a place (or who was taken from a place) and found their destiny in a strange and untamed wilderness.

The American character was not formed by a sense of community, but by an atomistic commitment to survive, to prevail. Individualism, the drive to control the course of our lives, is in our gene pool. An obstinate determination to be autonomous distinguishes the U. S. ethic from just about any other on earth. If there is such a thing as American exceptionalism, it is this: we are not tied together by skin color, language or religion–though there are some who would like to define us in those terms. We are tied together by an instinctive individualism.

So, when conservatives throw out their buzzwords, terms which reinforce a dedication to self-determination, our core natures are satisfied. This is who we are and always be.

Except that the promise of opportunity rings hollow today, as hollow as the pitch of a snake oil salesman. We, Americans, do not begin life with the prospect of a raw landscape, one which can be carved out by sheer force of will. The trees have already been cleared and the land appropriated. We are falling into tenancy, and the terms of this status are bequeathed to us at birth. Increasingly we are told there is a debt to be paid, one incurred by our parents long before we ever saw the light of day.

Perhaps it was a catastrophic medical event, an unsatisfied mortgage, or an unpaid student loan which precipitated our family’s decline. Whatever the cause, the burden becomes generational. Neighborhoods devolve into enclaves of poverty. Children are corralled into overcrowded, dangerous schools. They are shuttled out of professional-track education and encouraged to pursue vocational training, which is designed to prepare them for “jobs”– jobs which will pay little and insure the perpetuation of their subordinate state through their children and through their children’s children.

How does this environment differ from the social and economic stratification from which our ancestors, or perhaps from which we ourselves, fled?

Though the current situation–the decline in economic and social mobility–is grave, it is not hopeless. We are on the path to ruin, but we are not there yet. We can still wrest control from those who would keep us on this downward trajectory. The way to gain control is through government–which is why big business and wealthy conservatives place so much emphasis on minimizing the role of government and reducing the size of the electorate.

Government is the only agency (absent revolution) through which the relatively powerless can influence a system that is careening out of their grasp. It is through government, democratically elected government, that the less powerful express their will. So of course it makes sense that those who run big business, who own banks and brokerages, want to limit government.

Wealthy conservatives appeal to the rest of us for “freedom”. But their freedom insures our peonage.

Voter participation in the U.S. is low, often below 50%. As meager as this is, it’s not depressed enough for wealthy conservatives. They want even less people to go to the polls. The fewer of us that vote–the smaller the role of government–the more powerful they become.

Wealthy conservatives don’t want government or anyone else looking over their shoulders. They don’t want a “nanny state”. Like bullies in a classroom who intimidate when the teacher is absent, or highwaymen on a road who plunder when there is no sheriff, wealthy conservatives want “freedom”. In this unfettered environment, where muscle rules, the powerful can reap the rewards of “free” enterprise while the rest of us cower in their shadows.

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