Many distinguished scholars agree in general that we are witnessing “the last days of the American Republic.” But, ordinary people don’t need to rely on scholarly insights because the evidence that our republic is failing hits us almost every day, evidence summarized in the record low job approval ratings of both President Bush and Congress.
So many basic prescriptions of the Constitution have been violated that our government no longer honors the genius of its founders: legislative, executive and judicial powers go unchecked, unbalanced and often overlap. Even so, I can neither weep for the loss nor welcome what we have become.
The reason I do not weep arises from the conditions of my growing up in Mobile, Alabama, at a time when Jim Crow was in its prime; I was too white to be Negro and too dark-skinned to be white.
The Constitution allowed for each slave a political credit worth 60 percent of a man and this allotment was deposited in the voting accounts of the slaveholders. Emancipation effectively emptied those accounts and a subsequent attempt at redirection—“forty acres and a mule”—failed. The void was eventually filled by the “separate but equal” doctrine. Then Jim Crow arrived to personify prejudicial practices and to impose capricious and degrading legal limits on former slaves and their descendents. Thus, the 60 percent credit evolved into a segregated condition fixated on a “one drop” rule—one drop of Negro blood from one of my sixteen ancestors debased, by fiat, gallons of other kinds.
So it happened that Grandpa, Daddy and I were inured to those blessing of the liberty the founders sought to secure for themselves and their posterity.
Let the following anecdotes stand for a myriad of ways, both subtle and blatant, that Jim Crow used to annul for us those constitutional provisions.
A hundred years ago my maternal grandpa was jailed for picketing in front of City Hall against a cumulative poll tax, starting at $1.50, that few whites and no Negroes could afford. Daddy was a union leader at the aluminum ore company plant, ALCOA, outside Mobile. When union bosses reneged on their promise to negotiate for in-house professional training and career advancement for Negro employees Daddy resigned in despair, disgust and rage. He retired after two decades as a janitor.
Let this incident stand for my own encounters with being second-classed. In 1945 I was admitted to a northern college on condition that, because I was Negro—the only Negro, as it turned out—I would have to get grades above the norm. To be equal I had to be better.
So it happens that the Constitution’s purpose of providing for unity, justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare and liberty becomes a revered list for vacuous rhetorical political flourishes. Why, therefore, should I weep for benefits that I never fully enjoyed?
I look at the nation we have become and I see a pearl of promise being uncultivated, ignored and debased. Those old and noble American ideals, although honored more in the breach than in the fulfillment, are so distorted by officials sworn to uphold them that I have little and my children will have less to say about how we are governed.
Consider the drift of the “American experiment” from its mooring as a republic towards a de facto empire.
Our government spans the world; our soldiers are installed in almost 800 military installations in almost 200 nations worldwide. Hegemony, by its nature, requires the protection of a “standing army” and ours is a stupendous and expensive military complex that prospers and wags the authority of civilians constitutionally designated to control it. A nation that becomes a fortress to those outside will be a prison to those within.
Despite shrinkage in the gap between major left and right political parties, partisanship, like a virus, has infected the body politic frustrating every attempt to solve problems. For instance, neither the legislative nor the executive branch is able (or willing) to find a way to honor our immigrant heritage without criminalizing millions of decent residents. Separating us from them is shallow patriotism.
Or again, those in positions of authority assume that increased security necessarily means diminished liberty. The drift initiated by ubiquitous legalized spying leads to a “1984” future in which the television we watch is also watching us.
The Constitution gives Congress the power to vote for war and yet it votes a resolution that transfers to the president the unconditioned right to start a war. Never mind that his stated reasons are lies as they were, for example, in 1964 (when President Johnson told the nation that our destroyers were fired on by North Vietnam torpedo boats), or again in 2002 (when Bush insisted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction).
Bush’s two-term presidency has greatly advanced the imperial drift. Bush makes signing statements that effectively veto legislation and claims inherent powers normally exercised by Congress.
We do not have a government of, by and for the people. Seventy percent of Congresspersons favor policies opposed by the same percentage of the public: military occupation in Iraq, legal hair splitting about torture, double standards in choosing friends and foes, and double dealings when it comes to the needy, the dispossessed and the darker masses.
Finally, we the people are complicit in the failure of the republic.
We know that might does not make right, that the ends do not justify the means and that legal is not the same as moral. But we fail to act. We fail to demand openness. We allow ourselves to be influenced by a media that values image and celebrity above substance and service. Commerce is not a substitute for culture nor does great wealth lead the way to a better world.
We must reject bogus patriotic cant that paraphrases Malvolio’s self-righteous boast: America was born to greatness, America achieved more greatness, and America’s current super-greatness has been thrust upon us. When great nations boast, they have already become tyrannical.
I do not welcome a nation-state in which my children and their children will live not as citizens but as subjects.