What can we do in a democracy with the “1 percent,” or aristocracy? How can we preserve the values of freedom and equality when those with power and money are insensitive to others’ needs and bent on reducing everyone else to poverty?
Noted Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn, in his “To Begin the World Anew,” shows us that as feudalism gave way to new forms of governance, all the nations of the Atlantic basin (Europe, North Africa, Latin America and the U.S) struggled to decide what to do when the aristocracy engages in social oppression.
John Adams, vocal member of our nation’s founding generation and author of the Massachusetts constitution, railed against the American aristocracy. He decried “the inescapable propensity of all societies to develop differential and invidious levels of wealth, intellect and power.” We seem to naturally generate a wealthy class.
It’s an age-old problem, one we still have with us today: what can be done with the aristocracy?
How can we keep the one percent from overwhelming and injuring the rest of us?
Equality is difficult to command, and the privileged are dangerous if not isolated and confined. So Adams created a solution. He advocated for a government with two legislative bodies, one for the aristocrats, and one for ordinary people. We know them today at the federal level as the Senate and the House of Representatives respectively.
This bicameral (two house) structure allowed the founders to seal off those with wealth and power in ways that defined and limited their role in governance. Such a solution, Adams said, was “the ultimate protector of freedom by confining society’s most ambitious and dangerous forces to bounded fields of action.”
Interestingly, Adams’ solution for the U.S. generated international dialogue throughout Europe and the Americas. His concept was based on the radical idea that people, not corporations or the wealthy, should be sovereign. Our U.S. Constitution, including the bicameral legislature, became a model for many nations drafting constitutions at that time.
Curiously enough, however, our constitutional framework is not effective without continual reinforcement by our citizens – you and me. If the people don’t put up a mighty resistance every time the 1 percent try to take over, the aristocracy aggrandizes itself.
This is our situation today. It’s the reason for the great inequality we’re experiencing in income and net worth. But the solution Adams showed us will work – we must limit the political reach of the wealthy.
At the federal level we can do this by taxing them and their corporations, setting firm regulatory boundaries. This effectively re-distributes wealth from the 1 percent to the other 99.
But one way we here at EMU can make a difference is by voting and urging others to vote in the 2014 “mid-term” elections. Over the last half century, Americans have neglected to exercise their right to vote in all elections. We make the effort for presidential contests, then sit back and let the aristocrats have their way in the mid-terms.
This has placed our aristocrats in positions of power where they can put the rest of us on an economic slide to poverty. But if we all vote our consciences every time there is an election, it is less likely that the rich and the corporations will be so free to have things all their own way.
Democracy can work well with our diverse population, but only when the people exercise their rights enthusiastically. When we don’t, we help transfer wealth to the 1 percent and hasten the deterioration of justice and our freedom. The only real solution to this age-old problem is that the 99 percent need to get active, make noise and vote.
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