OK … I’ll let you take one more bite of your burger or hot dog, one more swig of beer, let some of the smoke from the barbecue grill dissipate, let the kids volley the badminton bird one more time, and give you a chance to hitch up your shorts and to belch so your gastric noises won’t drown out the announcement I’m about to make … ready? … OK … listen up … We are in the process of losing the American Revolution. I say “in the process” in a spasm of uncharacteristic optimism – very painful for a cynic like me -- because it may not be quite a done deal yet. It may still be in process. But we may … I said may … have already lost it. Oh … to be sure and so there’s no misunderstanding … we won the Revolutionary War. (Granted, with some help from people like the Marquis de LaFayette and the French navy bottling up the British at Yorktown in 1781. Vive La Belle France!) But we are in the process of losing the Revolution itself. So the best I can do this July 4 is to wish y’all a happy Dependence Day.
In retrospect, it turns out that winning the independence of the thirteen original Colonies was the easy part. The independence of the citizens of those Colonies-become-States is something else again. In his magisterial book about the early Republic, Empire of Liberty – which, if you have not read it, run-don’t-walk and do so – eminent American historian, Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown, Gordon S. Wood describes the Founders’ conception of the independence of lawmakers at all levels in terms all the more amazing for their descriptive accuracy and exhaustive documentation.
The revolutionary leaders did not conceive of politics as a profession and office-holding as a career. … [T]hey regarded public office as an obligation required of certain gentlemen because of their talents, independence, social preeminence,and leisure. … Showing oneself eager for office was a sign of being unworthy of it. (boldface added)
In context, by “independence” Wood means being independent of the pursuit of a trade or profession or job to maintain one’s livelihood. Economic disinterestedness translated into political and social disinterestedness: one’s ability to seek the common good of the community without regard to one’s personal advantage. (Being a lawyer was not considered a profession, least of all a job, in the late 1700s, but rather a leisure-time pursuit worthy of such a gentleman, which would equip him for this kind of selfless service.) Independence was a matter of degree, of course: not everyone was equally independent of the demands of making a living. But – so the belief went – one was capable of assessing the common good of the community and of disregarding considerations of personal aggrandizement to the degree that one was independent in this sense. Hence the 18th-century rationale for making the ownership of at least a certain minimum amount of property a criterion for holding office and for voting: as long you are dependent, and therefore beholden to a boss or a manager or an overseer or any kind of for-profit corporate structure, you are, to that extent, about as independent as a dray horse of the person holding the reins.
Problem was – Wood documents this, also, in too many places to cite – beginning as early as the 1790s, people, especially people of a Jeffersonian / lower-case-“r”-republican / usually anti-Federalist persuasion, actually began to practice the equality that the Revolutionary leaders preached even to the holding of elective office … and the Founders – aristocrats all! – were taken aback. Well! It’s one thing for people to believe in equality, quite another for them to practice it! The point I am making is that this is still happening today. We demand of our leaders, most of whom, at least at the Federal level, belong to the American aristocracy as surely as the Madisons, the Jeffersons, the Randolphs, etc., that they evince a level of average-Joe-Sixpack-in-the-street / Joe-the-Plumber commonality with the rest of us that they do not – and that we know they do not – possess. (Remember the elder President Bush staring in rapt amazement at a supermarket price-scanning laser as if it were a Romulan cloaking device?) But notwithstanding, “We the People” demand that the kabuki drama continue. So we listen with a straight face when Mitt and Ann Romney reminisce about how rough a time they had starting out … I dunno … maybe before they could afford air-conditioned stables for Ann’s Olympic horses. We are equally patient when we hear Hillary Clinton’s protestations of poverty when she and Bill left the White House so impoverished that they were down to their last box of Caviar Helper and a lone bottle of Veuve Cliquot, rather an upscale version of the Cratchits’ first miserable Christmas without Tiny Tim. We act and vote on the basis of an illusion of commonality … knowing all the time that this is a sham, and a well-scripted one, at that. We are theoretical Jeffersonians but practical Federalists. It is what we want to believe. As T. S. Eliot said "Human kind cannot bear very much reality".
This well-crafted illusion is what enables us to vilify the corruption and dysfunctionality of the Congress, while insisting – most of us, anyway -- that our particular representative is doing a creditable job. By which we mean that she is faithfully representing our particular set of interests. Unified, sustained, coherent, disciplined, orchestrated, and concerted action, the kind of action we saw in the late 60s against the draft and against Vietnam, the kind of action that resulted in President Johnson’s decision to not run for reelection, the kind of action that promoted civil rights and drew a medium-sized city of people to the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. King tell the Nation about his dreams … that kind of action has become the exclusive province of corporations, powerful interest groups, and people like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, who command resources sufficient to buy unanimity. (Need I point out that McCutcheon and Citizens United– ah ... the bitter irony in the name of the latter! – kicked in the warp drive in this process?) The rest of us are about as coherent and unified as a bunch of squalling newborns in a maternity ward. So when nine innocent African-Americans are shot dead during a Bible study in South Carolina, when 26 people (20 of them kids) are slaughtered at an elementary school in Connecticut, when the blood of movie-goers soaks the carpet at a cineplex in Aurora, CO ... we View With Alarm, beat our breasts black and blue, shout mea culpas to thin air ... then turn back to America's Got Talent, because the alternative -- marching in the streets to demand gun regulation with actual teeth -- is just too much trouble because our elected representatives have our best interests at heart.
We are in the process of coming full circle. We just kid ourselves that we are not. On the eve of the Revolution, the Colonies were governed by a system of political apartheid that excluded colonial representation in Parliament. The British argued that the Colonies had "virtual representation" -- that really was the term -- because Parliament, by representing everyone in general, represented the Colonies in particular, more or less fortuitously and by accident. It was "trickle-down" representation. Much the same is true today, except now arguments are seriously made about "trickle-down" economics: if "job creators" are given free rein to create low-wage jobs in the slums of Calcutta, a few might accidentally end up being created in the US. And so on.
The difference? In 1775, the Sons of Liberty hoisted a flag that read "Don't Tread On Me". We, by contrast, seem to enjoy being stepped on.
James R. Cowles