The Declaration of Independence proclaims “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness… ” This was in 1776. At the time society was principally agrarian. The principal measure of wealth was land ownership and land owners had the greatest voice as was the case in Britain. People came to America, however, for an opportunity to improve their own and there families condition. Land was plentiful and easier to acquire. Obstacles and problems were shared by the majority, who engaged in discussion, debate and compromise to improve the common good.
It took 11 years for the American democracy to be defined with the signing of the US Constitution. The constitution did not address all aspects of equality. Slavery was not banned and women were not given a vote. It took the 13th amendment in 1865 to abolish slavery. It took the 19th amendment in 1920 to give all women the right to vote. After the civil war, in the second half of the 19th century, the US experience the rapid rise of the industrial revolution. The economy was transformed from agrarian to industrial. Capitalism became a major factor in the democracy, something not envisioned with the constitution. Over the last few decades in particular, capitalism has been the engine that has created a huge income and wealth disparity. This occurred once before just before the great depression of the 30’s. It is different this time however, since money has become a major factor in politics.
I believe that the case is easily made that all citizens are equal in our democracy. Political influence and power is strongly correlated with wealth. Each citizen has a vote, but who and what we vote for is more and more decided by the political elite who wield power based on their wealth or wealthy supporters. So yes, we are a government of, by and for the people, but clearly not all ‘people’ have equal opportunity to contribute to governance. True democratic equality – absolutely not. It is a debilitating trend, a malignancy, eroding our democracy.
What is the answer? First, we need a public debate and acceptance of the reality of our situation. Second, the constitution needs to be amended to deal with the impact of capitalism, and income and wealth inequality coupled with the role of money and wealth on politics.