Remember when Abraham Lincoln wrote about our government as being “of the people, by the people, for the people”? Even after 150 years, those words still resonate, but they are increasingly less true. Today, our government places itself above the people, and when the government is not working against the interests of (most of) the people, it acts as if the people’s interests are beside the point.
We’ve entered a new historical moment in America, which is precisely the point of Tom Engelhardt’s latest essay at TomDispatch.com. As Engelhardt notes, our electoral process is “part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession, and part media money machine.” Our foreign policy, and increasingly our domestic policy as well, is dominated by the national security state, the one leviathan in our government that is never paralyzed. The political process itself is ever more divisive, polarized, and disconnected from the hardships faced by the working and middle classes. Even planetary dangers such as climate change are either denied or ignored, as if denial or ignorance will keep seas and temperatures from rising.
The very disconnection of our government from painful realities explains in part the appeal of “maverick” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Yes, they are two very different men, but what they have in common is their willingness to take the side of ordinary Americans, who have seen their standard of living stagnate or drop over the last thirty years. Trump says he wants to make America great again: the implicit message is that we pretty much suck now, that we are a nation in decline, and that the sooner we admit it, the sooner we can take action to restore America to greatness. Sanders says he wants a future we can believe in, which is at its core much like Trump’s message. America has serious problems, both men are saying, but greatness is still within our grasp if only we act together as a people.
Again, much separates Trump and Sanders, yet both are willing to admit the times are bad for many hardworking Americans. What they’re saying is this: the American dream is increasingly a nightmare. And part of the nightmare is a government that doesn’t act in the people’s interests because it’s been co-opted by special interests. A government that can’t even do its job, such as to declare war or to advise on a Supreme Court nominee, in accordance with its Constitutional duties.
The promise and potential of our country remains. But that promise, that potential, is being squandered by an alliance of various interests that are no longer responsive to the people. If not dead, representative democracy in America is on life support. Unless we can reinvigorate it, as Engelhardt notes in his article, we will continue to suffer a decline analogous to the declines of other great empires (think Rome, for example). The difference today is the possibility of planetary-wide destruction, whether quickly from nuclear weapons or slowly from climate change.
Never was a revival in American democracy more urgently needed, not only for ourselves, but for the world.