“The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.” -Pierre Abelard

First off, I just wanted to say thanks for the positive and encouraging feedback I received from my initial post. For quite some time I have sensed – and the comments seemed to confirm – that there is a growing feeling of unease and frustration among many on the left, a feeling that stems from their perception that the prescriptions endorsed by the leading voices of the liberal mainstream come uncomfortably close to satisfying that classic definition of insanity – i.e., doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
In my earlier post I basically defined the ‘what’ element of my critique – namely, my belief that from a purely structural standpoint, the American political system is skewered and biased so heavily in favor of the wealth class that people of average or below average means have no realistic hope of obtaining any kind of meaningful representation of their interests in government. Government – at all levels, not just federal – for all intents and purposes now functions as a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America. And more blatantly and unapologetically so all the time – a reality that has incredibly ominous and alarming implications for those of us who find ourselves on the outside looking in.

In this installment, I want to address the ‘why’ part of the equation. How did a system supposedly created on the principle of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ somehow metastasize into, in Ralph Nader’s words, ‘government of Exxon, by General Motors, for Dupont’? Well, the short answer is, it didn’t – in point of fact, it never was the former, and, to varying degrees, has always been the latter. Without a doubt, less openly in the past than today, but for those who make a careful reading of history, and develop some understanding of the dynamics that exist in any society between economic and political power, what we are experiencing today is merely the inevitable result of following a road map that was laid out by the framers of the Constitution at this country’s inception.

First off, it’s important to understand that the 55 men who were given the task of drafting the Constitution were overwhelmingly members of the colonial aristocracy – born into it, in the great majority of cases. (You can read thumbnail biographies of each of the delegates here.) Without a doubt, not all of these individuals were highborn men. But the fact remains that those of humble birth were a relatively small minority. Most had spent their whole lives as members of a privileged class that enjoyed an exalted and economically and politically dominant position in society. Wouldn’t it seem rather natural that these members of the colonial nobility would place a fairly high priority in making sure that, in the new form of government they were charged with creating, their position of dominance was left undisturbed?

And yet it is one of the cherished and enduring beliefs of our society that the phrase ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ was more than just an expression of a noble ideal, and an effective bit of rhetoric designed to inspire and galvanize a war-weary public, but rather a literal description of the true intentions of the Constitution’s architects. Regrettably, both common sense and the objective evidence suggest otherwise.

It is well known that the convention delegates essentially divided into two major factions – what might be called the royalist faction, led by Alexander Hamilton, and a more populist faction led by James Madison. (This of course was the philosophical split that ultimately led to the formation of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican political parties.) Hamilton made no bones about his desire to essentially replicate the British system of government, with its institutionalized class system, nor of the contempt and mistrust he felt towards those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. In Hamilton’s preferred formulation, the commoners would be excluded from the governmental equation almost entirely.

Madison, on the other hand, had a great deal more respect and sympathy for the common folk, and a strong conviction that the new government should give them at least some measure of control over their own destinies, and by extension, that of the nation as a whole. And yet Madison was hardly a raging egalitarian. Consider this convention statement of his, as recorded by fellow delegate Robert Yates*:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa, or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge of the wants or feelings of the day laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe; when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

* From Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, taken by delegate Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York.

Hmmm… is it just me, or does it strike you that Madison is perhaps a trifle more concerned with the welfare of the man who ‘lolls on his sofa, or rolls in his carriage’ than he is with the humble farmer toiling behind the plow, or the blacksmith bending over his anvil? Then again, we do need to cut our forefathers a bit of slack here, recognizing that at the time these words were spoke, not a single Western nation operated under a form of government that could remotely be considered democratic, and had not done so in the memory of any living person.

So Madison and his fellow delegates were indeed charting a course into the unknown, and it was understandable that they were concerned about putting into place safeguards that would prevent minority segments of the population from being wholly at the mercy of the majority – and of course that particularly applied to the ‘minority of the opulent’ to which most of them happened to belong. No doubt if Madison were alive today he would appreciate the irony that as things turned out, it was the majority that was more in need of protection from the opulent minority rather than the other way around.

To keep from getting overly long-winded I will wrap things up here for today – in the next installment, I’ll discuss the specific mechanisms that were embedded in the Constitution – as well as in the manner in which it was implemented – that were designed to favor the interests of those in the upper class, which set America on a path that it continues to follow to this very day.

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