Here’s a riddle for you:
Why would the leaders of a country in which the average income of the richest 1 percent is 81 times larger than that of the bottom 50 percent pass a bill designed to accelerate income inequality?
It’s certainly possible to point to a campaign finance system swamped by wealthy interests. But to make sense of our historical moment, one in which politicians routinely run as populists and rule as plutocrats, requires a more fundamental shift in our thinking.
We must begin to recognize that many of the basic stories we’ve told ourselves about America — the standard-bearer of modern representative democracy, the bastion of equal opportunity — are essentially fraudulent.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood has argued, the Founders themselves were predominantly elites whose chief concern was unifying the Colonies and freeing them from British tyranny. They viewed their fledgling nation as far more equitable than the monarchies of Europe. This is why there is almost no mention of economic equality in the founding documents. And for certain populations, the United States did honor the promise of prosperity in exchange for hard work.
But the nation’s economy was built on plunder: slave labor, and not just in the South; indentured servitude for both men and women; and the genocide of Native Americans. These fundamental inequities were baked into our founding documents. It wasn’t just that women and people of color by and large couldn’t vote. The very idea of direct elections was rejected in favor of an Electoral College system, and the infamous “three-fifths clause” allowed Southern states to count slaves as part of their populations.
The legal historian Michael Klarman makes an even more radical argument in his 2016 book, The Framers’ Coup. He believes the Constitution amounted to “a conservative counterrevolution” designed to protect the affluent (landowners and merchants) from state legislatures whose policies tended to redistribute wealth. Whether or not you agree with Klarman’s analysis, it’s impossible to deny that many of the Founding Fathers mistrusted popular democracy. We know this because, during the debate over ratifying the Constitution, a number of them recorded their views.
Benjamin Rush thought the colonists might become “savages” without a “vigorous and efficient government,” and like many of the founders feared a “simple” democracy, where the people represented themselves. George Washington himself argued that the framers “probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation.” Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton — all these men openly opposed giving the common man too much power, and thus devised a system of “self-governance” in which the rich controlled the levers of government.
Certainly, Jacksonians and the Whig Party pressed for more wealth equality into the early 1850s, but after industrialization it was Teddy Roosevelt who most directly confronted the inequality of wealth and opportunity that dogged our society. Roosevelt, in his New Nationalism speech of 1910, argued that the “conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.”
The widespread devastation of the Great Depression ushered in the reforms of the New Deal, which sought to safeguard needy Americans by providing them jobs, medical care, and Social Security. But over the past 40 years, as America’s ruling class has exercised ever greater influence over the political process, our government has regressed. Those who populate the halls of power — both in Washington and in our state capitals — are once again acting in defiance of their constituents. This regression has been engineered by conservatives but too often tolerated, and even enabled, by progressives.
And thus we live in a realpolitik in which those who “possess more than they have earned” are lauded as job creators, while those struggling to feed their children become welfare queens and immigrants are vilified as criminals. The result is a tax plan that will ultimately direct 80 percent of its benefits to the richest Americans, a measure supported by less than a third of all Americans. To pay for this massive windfall, GOP leaders are already discussing cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
If we are ever to reverse such antidemocratic measures, we must begin by reckoning with the unholy myth that has dogged America from its inception. We need to stop reflexively worshiping the Constitution. It is a form of idolatry that obscures the tangled truth of our national origins.
Our government was not created by or for blacksmiths or farmers. It was formed by rich men who, for all their virtuous ideals, firmly believed they should be insulated from the popular will. We are still ruled, predominantly, by such men.
In the end, we face the same choice as previous generations. We can choose to cling to our myths or choose economic and moral progress.
We can’t choose both.