When American democracy was formed it was defined as a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”. Back then it worked quite well. I believe that the primary reason was that all the people had a lot in common and therefore discussion among the ‘people’ was relatively easy. Consider the situation: most were recent immigrants and had experienced the challenges of immigration and settlement in a new environment. They were fleeing oppression of some sort and looking for opportunities to build a better life for self and family. They were ambitious and willing to contribute to the building of new communities and a new country. There was lots to talk about and people could easily ‘connect’. Said another way there were no social or other classes such as the nobility-commoner divide that many had experienced in England.
When the people’s representatives met in a legislative session they uniformly had a lot of overlap in experiences, priorities, and values. They faced the same problems, but certainly they had differing approaches to resolution. The debates were effective and produced compromised solutions – an effective democratic process. This has generally been the case until the late twentieth century.
Today, American society is polarized in multiple dimensions. Foremost, and ever-increasingly, is the financial divide. The “1%” own 40% of the wealth in this country*. Their interests and priorities have little to nothing in common with the middle class and the poor, in fact, sometimes quite the opposite. Other polarities exist: rural vs. urban; racial and cultural; immigrants vs. natural born, and more. The result is a legislative process that ha become a contest. Polarized factions must win to consider themselves and constituents successful. Absent is any sense of constructive debate and compromise. Thus, sadly, the cornerstone of American democracy is endangered.
In future blog posts we will look at what is possibly driving this trend toward ever more class inequality.