As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there’s a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
- William O. Douglas
Is past truly prologue? In his introduction to an 1899 English-language edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 classic Democracy in America, former Alabama state senator John T. Morgan describes the formative period of the “experimental” American republic:1
Those liberties had been wrung from reluctant monarchs in many contests, in many countries, and were grouped into creeds and established in ordinances sealed with blood, in many great struggles of the people. They were not new to the people. They were consecrated theories, but no government had been previously established for the great purpose of their preservation and enforcement. That which was experimental in our plan of government was the question whether democratic rule could be so organized and conducted that it would not degenerate into license and result in the tyranny of absolutism...
There was considerable concern during the Robber Baron Era when Morgan wrote that the Rockefellers and Goulds and Hearsts among us would ultimately end up an overwhelming ruling class.
It was just two years after William Randolph Hearst had cabled his artist correspondent to Cuba, Frederick Remington, “You provide the pictures, and I’ll provide the war.”
Hearst came through on his end of the deal, and the Spanish-American War—started largely by his newspapers and the public sentiment they controlled—led many Americans to wonder if our nation would ever become the egalitarian democracy its Founders envisioned. A new aristocracy was rising up and, some said, had totally taken over not only our business and our press but our government as well.
De Tocqueville himself warned of it in his own introduction to his 1835 book that Morgan later wrote a second introduction for: “Men are not corrupted by the exercise of power or debased by the habit of obedience,” he wrote, “but by the exercise of power which they believe to be illegal, and by obedience to a rule which they consider to be usurped and oppressive.”2
Yet within a decade of Morgan’s worrying concern that America was about to “degenerate” into the “tyranny of absolutism,” Republican president Theodore Roosevelt rose up against the corporate monarchs who thought they ruled this country and went after them with an iron hammer. He smashed Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust into more than 30 pieces. He called for minimum-wage and maximum-hour laws, famously calling for a “Square Deal” for every working American. He declared that every working person has the right to a “living wage,” which he defined as enough to raise children, provide good housing, cover the costs of health care and retirement, and even ensure an annual vacation.
It would still be a few generations before Teddy Roosevelt’s vision was accomplished during the presidency of another Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, but for more than half of all American workers that middle-class dream became real during the 30-year postwar era, coming to an end only when Ronald Reagan began his presidency by declaring war on organized labor by busting the PATCO air-traffic controllers union.
We’ve seen a lot of cycles in the history of this nation, a series of swings back and forth on the pendulum of oligarchy and democracy in our 230-plus years. In some ways today seems particularly bleak, when an individual hedge fund manger—a job that produces nothing of value for anybody—can suck out of our economy and take home in a single year more than $4 billion ($4,000,000,000.00) by betting that an investment vehicle held by pension funds and retirement trusts will fail. A small group of such individuals, in early 2010, paid themselves more than $140 billion—more than the sovereign debt of Greece, which ended up crushing that nation.
Yet if there are lessons in history, the first among them is that this too shall pass. Early advocates of abolition and suffrage never lived to see the fruits of their work, but an African-American president and a woman who nearly won the presidency would surely have both stunned and fulfilled them.
So the question today is: Will our republic survive as a democracy? Or will it continue to deteriorate into a corporate oligarchy, where all the forms and trappings are still in place but they’re merely a decorative shell over a rotten, bloated, tiny group of billionaires who pull all the strings, own all the media (and every other industry of substance), and work all politics exclusively to their own benefit?
In an era when even the populist uprisings—the Tea Party demonstrations—are actually spawned from a Republican PR company’s business plan and funded by oil billionaires, it’s easy to be concerned.
The Biggest Lesson of History
As challenging as the task may seem, we’re facing nothing compared with what the Founders took on; and Franklin Roosevelt famously told us that while great wealth may hate him, “I welcome their hatred.” Presidents can lead on behalf of the people, but only when the people demand that they do so.
That’s the biggest lesson of history. It took the excesses of the Tea Act of 1773—cutting to virtually nothing the taxes the East India Company paid on tea so that it could destroy its small colonial competitors—to provoke the colonists to commit the act of anti-corporate vandalism known as the Boston Tea Party.
It took the excesses of the robber barons to provoke Teddy Roosevelt to challenge them. It took the nationwide economic destruction of the Republican Great Depression to motivate the people enough to support and encourage Franklin D. Roosevelt to institute—over three (and a fraction) presidential terms—the New Deal.
Our economy is in tatters, the result of more than 30 years of Reaganomics and Clintonomics. Our democracy is hanging by a thread, the result of 40 years of radical Supreme Court decisions steadily advancing the powers of corporations and suppressing the rights of individuals and their government. And our environment is trembling under the combined assault of the Industrial Revolution and nearly 7 billion bundles of human flesh.
It’s the perfect time. We are clearly at a nexus, a threshold, a tipping point. If the past is any indicator, things will get worse before they get better, but in that tragedy will be both the catalyst and the seeds for a very positive future.
Now is the most important time for us all to be paying attention, to show up, and to wake up our friends, family, and neighbors. Because this nation is on the edge of a radical restart, a reboot.
Tag, you’re it.
1. John T. Morgan, introduction to Democracy in America, rev ed., by Alexis de Tocqueville (New York: Colonial Press, 1835, 1899), http:// books.google.com/books?printsec=frontcover&id=_OgJAAAAIA AJ#v=onepage&q&f=false.
2. Alexis de Tocqueville, The Republic of the United States of America, and Its Political Institutions, Reviewed and Examined (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1862).
Safir Ahmed took on the unenviable job of editing this book on the fly as I was writing it during various trips and week-ends and moments I could grab over the past year after I got off the air every day. It came to him in bits and pieces, sometimes inchoate, and he did a marvelous job of stitching together my many off- the-cuff writings. I’m deeply grateful for his work as the primary editor on this book.
Without the advocacy, insight, and tough editorial work of Johanna Vondeling at Berrett-Koehler and the brainstorming brilliance of my wife, Louise Hartmann, this book would not exist.
I’m particularly grateful to others at Berrett-Koehler who brought this book into being and made it work, both editorially, graphically, and in the marketplace. They include Richard Wilson, Dianne Platner, Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, marketing associate Jeremy Sullivan, senior sales manager Michael Crowley, sales manager Marina Cook, and publicist Katie Sheehan. And many thanks and much gratitude to a couple of real pros—Gary Palmatier and Elizabeth von Radics of Ideas to Images—for the book’s design and copyediting.
Copyright Thom Hartmann and Mythical Research, Inc. Truthout has obtained exclusive rights to reprint this content. It may not be reproduced, and is not covered by our Creative Commons license.
Want a copy of the book? Receive "Rebooting the American Dream: 11 Ways to Rebuild Our Country" as a thank-you gift with a donation of $35 or more to Truthout.