WASHINGTON – A week after the 236th anniversary of the birth of the United States — which was squalling to the world in its very first utterance that all men were created equal and endowed with unalienable rights — the essence of our politics is still about who are those people who are self-evidently equal and inherently vested with those rights.
Over the subsequent two-plus centuries, we’ve invoked the spirit of our primal shout every time we’ve expanded our definition of equal men — when we moved to popular elections, abolished slavery, gave women the vote, enacted civil rights legislation, and today, when gays and lesbians are winning the equal status and unalienable rights that heterosexual Americans take for granted.
But the author of our founding declaration was concerned with more than legal equality. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation of yeoman farmers (and, to be sure, slaveholders like himself) and wanted it to remain chiefly rural to avoid the concentration of wealth and power that would come if the nation urbanized and if finance grew into a dominant sector.
His great rival Alexander Hamilton feared that the nation would remain a backwater absent cities, finance and manufacturing. As Treasury secretary, Hamilton used the powers of the nascent republic to foster industry and development.
As the U.S. grew into the world’s dominant economy, the concerns that Jefferson voiced grew more acute. How could the U.S. retain its formal equality and civic virtue in the face of towering economic inequality that enabled the rich to dominate our political system?
In the first half of the 20th century, both Roosevelts and their allies devised reforms to restore some of Jefferson’s egalitarianism in what was, by then, Hamilton’s America. Progressive taxation, the establishment of wage and labor standards and the legalization of unions reduced economic inequality, while the prohibition of corporation donations to political campaigns diminished, somewhat, the wealthy’s sway over government.
That was then. The war that the American Right and corporate elites have waged against the Roosevelts’ Jefferson-Hamilton synthesis for the past 40 years has largely prevailed. Taxes have grown radically less progressive, the minimum wage has declined as a percentage of the median wage and unions’ legal protections to organize in the face of employer opposition have eroded.
As a result, wages are at their lowest level since the end of World War II as a share of national income, and U.S. median household income is at roughly the same level as 20 years ago.
The nation is richer and more productive than it was 20 years ago, but all that added income and wealth has gone to the top 10 percent, and disproportionately to the richest 1 percent.
The growing concentration of wealth has led to a growing concentration of political power as well. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down 100 years of legal restraints on corporations’ ability to fund campaigns and buy elected officials. The court permitted unions to dip into their treasuries to fund campaigns too, but its decision last month in Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000 — issued by the same five conservative justices who promulgated Citizens United — created a legal double standard between unions and corporations.
By virtue of Knox, a union must ask its members’ permission to spend on political campaigns, but a corporation need not ask its shareholders.
As for social parity, it has seldom looked more robust. As for economic equality and the political equality with which it is intertwined, the picture is bleak.
The mega-banks that plunged us into deep recession have had the political power to forestall their breakup. A handful of billionaires continues to donate unprecedented sums to election campaigns. The share of national income and wealth that goes to the vast majority of Americans continues to decline.
The Republican Party — and the five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court — are committed to doctrines that will make these disparities more glaring. The recent exception to this trend is the health care-reform act, which partially extends the Declaration’s assertion of equal rights to the realm of medical access.
That’s no small achievement, but with that single exception, Jefferson’s vision of equality is in peril.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.