Our Pride, Our Burden

November 21, 2008

Pride is a human condition that makes us feel good about something that we consider ourselves part of. But, even though pride has that feel-good element, it comes at a price. It puts us at risk of becoming blind to the possible negatives of the things we feel proud about. It diminishes our ability to think critically. Politicians use that to their advantage when they remind us that America is the greatest democracy, that it is the land of opportunity, that it is a guiding light for people and nations all over the world, and that we are invincible — it is the land of the brave. And we want to believe it. This is a great country and there are opportunities. We have helped others and we are the envy of others. But, should those facts blind us to some good things from elsewhere? Unfortunately it does and the price is that we keep hobbling along with a colonial system of government that serves our people less and less. The organization of our government is based on the shareholder interests as they existed before the founding of our nation. With a few minor exceptions, white, male property owners in the North American colonies were the only ones with a right to vote. Although the nation, after much discussion, decided on universal suffrage for white men, the system of representation was modeled on the two parliamentary systems that existed at the time, that of the Dutch Republic and that of England. Both had a form of district representation in the national legislature. America chose to have one man represent each district. That man would need the plurality of the vote in his district. All grown white men of 21 years of age or older were eligible to vote after they registered with their district to do so. Under this system the larger landowners had the most influence and they often (s)elected one of their own to represent them in the legislatures and the US House of Representatives. The Industrialization of America brought in other large players but the concept remained the same. The Emancipation (end of slavery) and the introduction of universal suffrage added more voters to the rolls but the lists of viable candidates were still determined and dominated by the largest wallets. In other words, the largest shareholders, in terms of financial interests, still have the most influence. And that is still true today. It is no accident that the conservatives, who represent this class of wealthy owners, want to preserve this situation. To help them they invoke the first amendment which guarantees “Freedom of Speech.” Over the years what constitutes speech has been significantly broadened: i.e. flag burning. How we conduct that speech is also broad. At the time the Bill of Rights was written the known forms of speech were: public speaking, pamphlets, and advertisements in periodicals. Today we have much more intrusive and persistent means of delivering messages. Especially television spots are effective. But their high price tag makes them available to big wallets only. Campaign finance reform has done little to diminish the influence of the modern shareholders. Instead of giving their own money they use their power to collect from others instead and “bundle” the proceeds into large sums.
Did Obama’s campaign break that system? I think not. His campaign benefited from the innovation to collect funds from small donors on the internet. Now that everyone knows how to do this it will again be up to the most influential to use this method to their advantage. America, it appears, is still a shareholder dominated society that tells the rest of us to be proud of it.