In 1776, individual human liberty was a radical idea. Empires dominated world history. The suggestion that even broad groups within a society could effectively exercise voting rights was considered ridiculous. Wealth, religious authority, and (to a lesser degree) education dictated who exercised the power of government and shaped the lives of most human beings. Sadly, not much has changed over the last 236 years.
Democratic republics like the United States are more common now than ever. Fewer societies adhere to the authoritarian or theocratic systems seen in China, Russia, and Iran. Yet the broadly held belief that every human being has inalienable rights (that manifest most notably in the right to vote) is under scrutiny.
Other writers have emphasized the recent state-level trends to restrict voting rights in the 2012 election. There is a larger concern that is going unnoticed. As American law protects private corporate donations as political speech, the underlying ideology that limited government promotes individual liberty gets twisted to allow the tyranny of the wealthy and the self-sanctified.
Corporate authority must never threaten the fundamental dignity and worth of humanity.
This principle is the point of collision between the two political philosophies in tension throughout American history. From 1790 to 1860, state sovereignty prevailed to the defense (and dominance) of Southern plantations in American politics. From 1870 to 1980, the growth of a strong central government created levels of national, industrial development never seen in world history. Over the last thirty years, financial deregulation and computerization formed the foundation for a global, information economy that promises greater access with the risk of an unimaginable plutocracy.
The party of Lincoln became the party of Reagan, based on the core beliefs of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater. As Todd Akin, Paul Ryan, and Mitt Romney argue, limited government means a return to the nineteenth century reliance on state sovereignty, even if it risks a century of global slavery. On the other end of the spectrum, Democratic Presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama have squandered their opportunities to fundamentally maintain the radical promise of the nation’s founding.
Johnson’s escalation of the War in Vietnam destroyed America’s moral leadership in the world. Carter’s inability to direct a path to energy independence and military superiority crippled the promise of American liberalism at home and abroad. Clinton’s compromises with a generation of cynical, conservative ideas created the system of the New Jim Crow around the world. Obama has wagered his success in rescuing global finance and in decimating global terror networks on his ability to convince the public that slow, stable growth is better than catastrophic boom and bust cycles this November.
It is time to end the charade that the government that failed in 1860, failed in 1929, and failed in 2008 should be the basis of world stability in the twenty-first century. The American people must lead the world in defending the principle that human beings – not markets— maintain this complex world system.
Dr. Walter Greason is a Visiting Professor at Monmouth University. You can follow him on Twitter (@worldprofessor1).