It was the great experiment: a nation without a king; a nation without a military junta; a nation of self-rule by its citizens. The history of the United States frequently has shown that the Republic can faulter. Each recovery is slightly different, provoking new interpretations of a democratic republic.
War certainly disrupts democracy. To name just a few nation-changing wars: Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, both World Wars, and the Viet Nam War. There are economic conflicts that affect democracy: The Panic of 1785 – 88 was an economic expansion that went bust when Great Britain would not participate in trade. The result was a stronger government that could influence economic parameters. The Panic of 1796 – 97 was strikingly similar to the recession of 2008, a collapse of real estate values and over extended banks. Many folks are still alive who remember the Great Depression of 1929 – 33.
At the end of these recessions and many others, legislation was passed that made the federal government less responsive directly to citizens in order for the government to maintain control of the economy. During the Reagan administration in the 1980s, the economic policy shifted to encouraging private enterprise and investment. As of today, the economic imbalance between rich and poor, salary constraint and diminishing labor stability are major issues.
Other changes associated largely with increased population and manipulated representation have distorted permanently the idea of one citizen, one vote such that not everyone has a vote, not every vote is equal and the subsequent reality often doesn’t reflect the voters’ intent.
Social abuses, most often financial disparities and less than patriotic treatment of citizens of every stripe creates strongly defined classes which, when the nation is under duress, quickly splinter national unity.
Finally, great shifts in agriculture, weather, science and technology throw society off balance. These changes are slow to move and often are subtle and ignored until the impact is troublesome. Establishment seems not capable of solving the issues of a changed ‘sovereign’ nation.
The democratic citizen has not held the reigns of sovereignty for a long time.
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It took half a century, suffragettes, significant labor conflict, two wars and an almost fatal depression to change the nation from what it was in 1900 to what it became in 1950. (‘nation’ means the whole kit and caboodle: how and why the government operates, the culture, economy and international role) In 1900 citizens bought the first automobiles and by 1950 they bought the first televisions. During that span the internal combustion engine launched the fossil fuel era.
From 1950 to 2000 (with the exception of the Kennedy presidency – which was stopped by three assissinations) the nation grew conservative in the face of the cold war, the Korean Conflict and the Viet Nam War. The stresses of a changing world were evident in McCarthyism, young people rioting at the Democratic Convention and, with the effort to pass the Civil Rights Act, conflict became physical between races; cities were looted and burned. Four college students were killed by the National Guard. Labor unions were targeted by conservative state governments. During the 1960’s the pressure of change erupted like a volcano.
By the 1980’s the national philosophy had begun to shift from strength in unity to strength in money – from labor and manufacturing to investment and corporatism. Riding a global wave of economic success during the 1990’s put aside issues of uncertainty among citizens and further exacerbated the stressed culture by starting wars in the Middle East. Old political conflicts from the cold war emerged again.
It would take literally a new generation of citizens who had no historical ties to the twentieth century before issues of a troubled society came to the forefront. The twentieth century Establishment had stayed too long. The government was trying to keep a dead horse on its feet. Quickly, populism emerged and Donald Trump was elected.
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Time is long overdue for an exercise to reconstruct what can pass as some version of the great experiment. The decades of delay have created many pieces lying about which must be fitted back together, very much like trying to figure out a complex tangram. One piece is lexicon. The verbal conflict is full of words that have changed nuance or even are no longer useful; many new words did not exist in 2000 that reflect a faster moving world society. What do conservatives mean when they espouse capitalism? Or socialism used by liberals? Another piece, since the beginning, is race. The nuance has changed even since the 1990’s.
Other pieces include privacy, security, voting parity, term limits, health, job, salary, taxation, financial and corporate regulation, dysfunctional lobbying and fund raising, foreign policy, freedom, equality, newly defined infrastructure, artificial intelligence, housing, environment, and not last, international economy. All these pieces must become a unified whole if new generations are to sustain the great experiment.
It is easy to define pieces but hard to define the tool that will reassemble the pieces. It is hard to define the tool because the tool is every every every American citizen. Forty-seven percent voting is not every American. The nation is not a set of Lego blocks that snap together. It is a viscous, surging mass that must continually adjust. Imagine a huge flock of birds soaring in the sky; each and every bird is constantly adjusting its own path to assure the flock remains whole otherwise predators will be able to focus on individual, vulnerable birds. Mariner suggests that already other nations are lurking closely, eager to kill the great experiment.
At the personal level, where one talks with family, friends and associates, there is an attitude that can be expressed by letting them know that their right to believe what they believe is an American right not allowed in most of the world and “regardless of differences, always know I have your back if you need me.” Mariner has used that sentence with great success. Unity is the goal.