In the United States, has “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people” perished from the Earth?

When my four and seven year-old daughters reach the age where they can understand, what should I tell them is the kind of government that we live under? In the United States, has “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people” perished from the Earth, and should I tell them that?

It seems, after all (at least to me), that we do not live so much in a democracy or representative republic, but a plutocracy (wherein the rich rule).

Of Lincoln’s famous statement, take that government “of the people” part. Do our representatives really represent a broad swath of the American people—or just its elite slivers? And aren’t most of the members of the Senate millionaires?

And what about government “by the people”? Isn’t it quite obvious that mass television propaganda campaigns, financed by wealthy interests, are the chief drivers of state and federal election outcomes? As Noam Chomsky so frequently says, the consent of the people is largely manufactured.

And what of that “for the people” part? Isn’t this also quite obviously false? If there is any doubt about this, recall the recent bank bailout. The bank bailout demonstrated that, when push comes to shove, the U.S. government functions primarily for the benefit of corporate and wealthy interests, and not for the general welfare (the interests of the public at large).

I think the best thing (the truest thing) to tell my daughters is this: our country used to be a representative republic, but right now it’s a plutocracy masquerading as a representative republic. Maybe democracy will reassert itself in an authentic way again, but it’s not clear if, how, or when that might happen.

If, how, and when have replaced of, by, and for.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to In the United States, has “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people” perished from the Earth?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I think you may be thinking that the past was somehow more idealistically pure than it really was. You think the problem is that you may be too cynical of the present. I think you’re being to romantic about history.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Andrew,

    I don’t think I’m too cynical about the present. In fact, I’m probably not cynical enough. It’s hard to match one’s cynicism and outrage with the degree of stealing that actually went on during the bank bailout, for example.

    And as for the past, I hope I’m not too blinkered there. When our country was first founded, I think that Jefferson and the others really did hope to make a country of citizen-farmers (literate and rational working people engaging in literate deliberation and sending literate representatives on their behalf to enact public legislation that would benefit the country as a whole).

    This has always been a complicated proposition, but I think things have gotten far worse since Eisenhower spoke (on leaving office) of the danger of a money-driven “military industrial complex” undermining our ideals. I think it’s happened exactly the way that Eisenhower feared. I think we’re there. The bank bailout demonstrates it. Iraq demonstrates it. The role that mass media propaganda campaigns play in public life demonstrates it.

    And we’ve become a largely illiterate people (illiterate in the sense of knowing or caring about history and science and being mesmerized by image-based media). Most people don’t read books anymore. Maybe they never really did (at least enough). But now the cost of that ignorance is revealing itself.

    —Santi

  3. santitafarella says:

    One more quick thought here.

    Maybe we don’t deserve a functioning republic. Like all things subject to entropy, a republic takes thought and work. But people have been conditioned to specialize in their work and to focus on their narrow sliver of existence (and not take responsibility for the health of the whole).

    I read a shocking statistic recently: a majority of children now grow up in homes where no adult in the home has ever voted. Think about that.

    —Santi

  4. Paradigm says:

    As long as there have been humans the smart have ruled. They are elected by God, the People or whatever charade they need to disguise the fact that they outsmarted the rest. The only way around that is for smart but humbler people to team up and build some sort of meritocracy.

    • santitafarella says:

      Paradigm,

      You’re basically correct, but I think that there probably has been a divergence between wealth and smarts in which smart people running for office can be trumped by stupid people backed by rich people.

      And there’s got to be structural things that can be done. (From term limits to public financing of elections). Wouldn’t it be nice if a white collar community could once in a while send to Congress a middle class businessman not in the pocket of a wealthy set of backers? Or a college dominated community sending a beloved professor to Congress? Or a blue collar community sending a moderately successful local contractor to Congress?

      Every person who runs for office now has to raise staggering amounts of money—and that money doesn’t even come in bulk from the community from which the person comes. Democracy could be structured differently so that the spectacularly wealthy don’t exercise a near veto on who can plausibly run for an office.

      —Santi

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