This month’s Atlantic Magazine has a depressing little article about how the idea of America—the set of beliefs that animated people like Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau—appears to be disappearing with each passing generation, leaving only a dry husk of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia in its place. According to the article, on a scale of 1-10, less than a third of Americans born since 1980 assign a 10 to the value of living in a democracy (as opposed to 3/4 of those born before WWII). A quarter of Millennials say it’s not important to choose leaders in free elections, and a little less than a third think civil rights are needed to protect civil liberties. The article doesn’t talk about what or who those people think will protect their liberties, absent a code of civil rights. Perhaps they think Mark Zuckerberg will have their back. I don’t know.
There was a time—just yesterday, really—when the average person’s safety depended on his allegiance to a local lord of some kind. The lord was part of the ruling class—the strong and wealthy and well-connected. They weren’t regular people, and regular people could not ascend or aspire to their level. In some places, rulers were considered gods; in others, they simply received their right to rule from God. Either way, they owned the wealth of the country, and they owned the land of the country, and those things were carefully managed and preserved and handed down from generation to generation. A local warlord or strongman was given a garrison and some parcel of land by the ruler, and his job was to hold it against invaders and other evil-doers. The regular people who happened to live on those lands were under the protection of that lord, and paid for that protection with…whatever was asked of them (just as the lord owed his life to his ruler). Perhaps the lord wanted a percentage of your crops. Perhaps the lord wanted you to serve as a soldier in his little army. Perhaps the lord wanted your daughter. All fair game. He didn’t just write the laws; he was the law. If you didn’t like the way he ran things, or the level of protection you and your family were afforded, or the price you had to pay to stay within his realm…too bad. In some lands and times, he actually, outright owned you. In others, he simply had such overwhelming power over you that he might as well have owned you.
That is the way things were, with minor variations, for most of us, for most of history. The strong and the wealthy ruled, and the rest of us served their interests, their needs, and their appetites. The rulers took care of the poor to whatever extent they felt it was affordable and manageable. After all, they needed farmers and soldiers. There was work to be done…and they, the lords, were the ultimate owners of that work, regardless of who did it for them. The rich assumed that the fact of their wealth was an indication of their moral and spiritual worth, and the poor were taught that their poverty was a sign that there was something wrong with them, something that their lords suffered with patience and magnanimity, as God himself did.
That dynamic is baked deep into our bones, as humans. Something in us yearns for the strongman, for the big daddy, for the god who rewards and punishes. Don’t let two hundred years of self-government fool you. Two hundred years is nothing.
If you look across human history, the idea of broadly applicable civil rights is not the norm—not by a long shot. Rule of law is not the norm. Representative democracy is not the norm. Even a merchant/entrepreneurial class standing between the peasantry and the aristocracy is not the norm. If we assume that these things just happen, and will always be there for us, then we’re fools. The founders of our country and their more progressive descendants fought hard to bring these things into existence, and without constant pressure, the old way of doing things can easily return. We saw it creep up during the Gilded Age, only to get pushed back by a couple of Presidents Roosevelt. And again, today, it’s returning.
The strong and the wealthy want to rule; they expect to rule; they are surprised and annoyed whenever constraints are put on them; and they fight, constantly, to remove those restraints and run free. They feel it is their right (or perhaps their burden), as exceptional people.
This is American politics at its core: a fight between those who want to constrain the pursuit of wealth and power to allow room for every citizen to pursue his or her own happiness, and those who feel the wealthy and powerful are entitled to everything they can grab. Some people call this “class warfare,” like it’s a bad thing. But it’s not a bad thing; it’s the only thing. We value the freedom to do as we please, but we also value equity and fairness. Two great ideas that fit together like oil and water.
If we value personal freedom but also social equity, we have to find ways to balance them. And “ways” means laws. Those with wealth and power are always well positioned to acquire more of both; those with neither are eternally at a disadvantage. Where we can’t do for ourselves, the force of law has to do for us. That’s what laws are for. We were not promised happiness, but we were promised the ability to pursue happiness, and the laws of the land exist, to some extent, to allow each citizen a reasonable shot at that pursuit. The fair and equitable pursuit of happiness, regardless of birth circumstances, has never existed without structures put in place and held in place for just that purpose. Without those laws, all you can do is ask pretty please for the wealthy and powerful to help you out. And they will, gladly….for a price. The historical norm, into which we could easily slide if we’re not careful, is some form of feudalism, where a tiny fraction of the population own everything…and everybody.
Donald Trump is not a Republican or a Democrat; he’s a feudal lord dressed in a bad suit, constantly confused about why all these little people are getting in his way. His every action, from the way he decorates his homes and addresses his adoring crowds to the way he takes what he wants, when he wants it, speaks to this self-image. He does not exist to serve us; we exist to serve him. The only reason for our existence is to exalt him. The country is his for the taking—his and his family’s. He has lived this way, unapologetically, for over 70 years. How he managed to bamboozle anyone into believing he cared about the “common man” as anything but the raw ingredients for his next meal is beyond belief.
What would an American feudalism look like? It would start with simple beliefs—things like basic health care not being not a right. The government not owing you anything. Taxation being theft. The government needing to be small enough to drown in the bathtub. The desire to be left alone, to do what we will, or what we can. Unfettered individualism. It sounds very American, very cowboy, very freeing. And it is freeing, and desirable…as long as you have cash.
What happens if you don’t have cash, or if the goods and services become crazily expensive? Well, in that case, health care is what you buy if you’re rich. If you’re not rich, it’s a gift to be bestowed upon you by your employer, who is rich. And you’d better behave yourself if you want to hold onto it. Or you can go with the rest of the bungled and the botched to the emergency room, and throw yourself on their mercy. Of course, if taxation is theft, and everyone has to pay their way, you may not have that merciful option open to you for very long. But…too bad for you. That’s life. You are owed nothing; you are promised nothing; you should have worked harder.
Roads? Schools? Protection from fire? Protection from thieves? The rich and the powerful are happy to pay for those things…for themselves. But they’ll be damned if they’re going to shell out their hard-earned cash to protect you. They’ll retreat to their gated compounds, where the roads are well tended. They will provision their estates wonderfully. And they will protect what they have ruthlessly. After all, there are so few of the blessed inside, and so many of the cursed outside. There is no social contract; there is only you, and you, and you.
Of course, a wide range of services will always be needed within these compounds. Someone will have to sweep the streets. Someone will need to teach the children. And so on. The gates will open, and the serving class will be allowed in, one by one—pledging their allegiance and their service to the lord, and accepting his protection in return. Of course we’ll pledge our allegiance. Without a working police force, or fire department, or sanitation system, what other choice will we have? We will destroy the idea of a government we choose, whose functionaries are beholden to voters, and replace it with a ruling class that gets to make all the decisions by itself, for itself. And for us, too, when it occurs to them. Your lord might be an actual person, or it might be a corporation, but either way, the lord will hold power and the lord will grant privileges. “Rights” will be what you earn through your loyalty and hard work.
When we look around the world today, we see a lot of representative democracies, and we think, “Well, that’s just how good, sane people do things, here in the 21st century.” But this century is just a dot on a very long timeline, and our nation’s whole history is just a tiny stretch of time between dots. Electing leaders and holding them accountable to our needs and desires is nothing like the norm, historically. Assuming our leaders should be held accountable to the same set of laws as all other citizens is equally unusual. If we think it’s a valuable thing, we’d better start valuing it.
We should not assume that what we have is safe, stable, or normal. It needs constant protection. If we care about it, we have to make sure we actually understand how it works, so that we can protect it. We have to teach it to our children and make sure they treasure it, as well. We have to be zealots about it. As unfashionable and un-ironic and un-detached as it may sound, we have to be patriots.