I always love reading various columns and blog posts reflecting on the Independence Day holiday because unlike most commercialized or 3-day weekend oriented holidays, most of the writers who reflect on the Fourth are in one way or another reflecting on America's national founding. The incredible courage of those founders who in Philadelphia that summer pledged "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" remains a wonder to those of us living today. But what matters even more as far as I am concerned is what they did the day after they took the vote in favor of the Declaration of Independence, and every day after: they stuck together, didn't back down or give up or turn selfish when times were tough, and they built a great nation brick by brick.
We are not tested in the way those men were tested, but we are today tested severely. On our day after the Fourth, we are faced with some pretty fundamental decisions about how we rebuild a country that was built strong on a wide and sturdy foundation but is now crumbling. America's middle class has been that foundation, and it was not built by a winner-take-all economic system where the rich kept getting richer and the strong crushed the weak. It was built by conscious decisions of policy makers through much of our history, including:
- Thomas Jefferson's passion for public education which started our country's dedication to free public schools.
- Henry Clay's American System of continual investments in our public infrastructure.
- Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (there is no chance for a middle class if your society can enslave millions of members of your workforce); the Homestead Act, which gave away millions of acres of farm land to poor people; and his Land Grant University System, which allowed millions of poor and working class families to send their children to college.
- Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting and child labor laws.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, which included Social Security, decent labor laws, bank regulation which broke up big banks and ended the cycle of middle class-crushing depressions, rural electrification and farm price supports, and the GI Bill.
- Dwight Eisenhower's Small Business Administration and Interstate Highway System.
- John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson's policies ending Jim Crow and creating Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start; and the Defense Department's research operation they set up in the '60s led to the development of the Internet.
Without these government policies, the American middle class would never have grown to be as broad and prosperous as it became, or it would have been crushed -- as it came very close to being -- by the big trusts and big banks who got too powerful and had begun, in the 1890s and 1920s, to squeeze the life out of that middle class.
Conservatives will argue that our big, prosperous, widespread was built by rugged individualists and free enterprise alone, but looking back at history, it couldn't be more clear that it didn't work that way. Innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs all did their part to build this country, but they never did it alone. The government policies I described, and many others along the way, educated those entrepreneurs and their workforces, built roads for them to take their goods to market, and built communities of people making enough money to buy their goods. When the trusts were trying to destroy their small business competition, government once stepped in. When the big banks and financial speculators threw millions of people out of work, government for three generations saved the day.
What our history, from the day after July 4, 1776 on, shows is that America does well when we look out for each other. As Ben Franklin put it when the Declaration of Independence was published, "we had better all hang together, or we will each hang separately." In the debate over the new constitution, which gave the federal government more power than it had under the Articles of Confederation, George Washington said this: "We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern, act as a nation which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be." Or as one of early Puritan founders John Winthrop put it in 1630:
"For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others' necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body."
Contrast those statements by our founders with the we-are-all-in-this-alone-with-no-obligation-to-each-other rhetoric from those on the right. Here's Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on why we shouldn't help poor people receive health care coverage: "The president needs to understand what makes this country great in part is that we're not dependent on government programs." Yeah, like public education or the Homestead Act or interstate highways or Social Security or Medicare or the GI Bill or student loans. No, governor, what makes this country great is that we are, in Washington's words, a united people; in Winthrop's words a "community as members of the same body."
The American idea of equality and community has always been controversial. Thirty percent of the colonists supported Britain in the revolutionary war. The opposition to the Constitution was bitter and intense; it almost did not make it precisely because people opposed a stronger central government. John Calhoun and his fellow conservatives hated Jefferson's equality language in the Declaration, and the idea of democracy itself, and when abolitionists kept pushing to end slavery, Calhoun's ideological heirs launched a civil war. The robber barons and Social Darwinists of the Gilded Age despised the Progressive and Populist movements that brought TR's reforms, and FDR, JFK and LBJ's reforms were all vehemently opposed as socialistic or worse. But these ideals of equal opportunity and an American community where we "make others' conditions our own" is what sustains us in the kind of tough times we are living in today.
We are living in a historical moment where in my view this American idea is at as great a risk as it has been since our Civil War. Concentrations of wealth, industry, and power have grown to such a frightening size that they threaten both our democracy and our economic well-being, and too many of our political leaders have become fervent disciples of Ayn Rand's philosophy that selfishness is a virtue. That combination is deadly to our future, and if the threat is not turned back, America's days as a great nation will pass into history.
I was raised to believe that I was my brother and sister's keeper, that I needed to keep the Golden Rule, that I would ultimately be judged by whether I had shown love and compassion toward those with less than me. And inextricably linked to those beliefs was my belief in that American idea, the dream that we were one people who stood together when times were tough, that we had equal rights and opportunities under a government of, by, and for the people. I know the dream was never complete, that we had to constantly be striving for a more perfect union. But that idea and that dream -- of Jefferson and Franklin and Washington, of Lincoln, of FDR and Martin Luther King, Jr. -- is still possible, and it is always worth striving for.