Keeping the American Experiment Alive

This is an op ed I wrote that was published in the San Mateo Daily Journal on July 1, 2022.

This Independence Day comes at a disturbing time, with rights being trampled so that personal privileges can be maintained. Underpay people, denying them a decent life while enriching yourself. Require everyone to risk slaughter by madmen so you can protect yourself against imaginary threats. Take control over women’s’ bodies because they can’t be trusted to do what you think best.

But there is reason for hope. Because while distorting our principles got us into this mess, those ideals also point the way out. If enough people exert themselves to get us back on track.

Our federal government was created a decade after we won our liberty. Those first years were tumultuous, and oddly similar to today. Our first confederation failed, too weak to deal with the British cutting us off from their empire. Leading to massive inflation, followed by massive deflation.

Most states wanted to go their own way. It’s hard to forge a nation out of people who considered “America” an abstract label. Even a century later, Robert E. Lee justified treason by explaining he might be an American but was a Virginian first.

The well-off feared economic calamity was causing voters to push state governments into radicalism. A new national government was needed to keep the states in line. Washington wrote about this fear in letters to the central figures behind the Constitution.

In most states adopting the Constitution required approval by specially elected delegates, at a time when many voters were facing ruin. That drove the authors to market the pitch in the language of individual liberty and freedom. After all, voters were being asked to consider something intended to rein in the very state governments they looked to for help. It is not an accident that the Constitution starts with “We the People” despite being designed to govern the states.

It was a brilliant strategy, and it worked, albeit just barely. Most of the state votes were close (Rhode Island overwhelmingly rejected the Constitution in a plebiscite). I can see the authors wiping their brows and congratulating each other: “Thank goodness, we managed to avoid losing everything!”.

Under the Constitution everyone is equal before the law. It’s a radical idea, as any dictator will tell you. But it’s never been fully implemented, probably because the people who wrote it were leery of what the have-nots – and women and slaves and other “rightfully” suppressed groups — might do with it.

That disconnect has plagued our history. Political stability allowed economic forces to dramatically enhance wealth and income. Yet economic success creates and magnifies disparities favoring the more successful, whether they achieved that success through their own efforts or by birth. The powerful will always be tempted to warp the system to protect their interests, at the expense of those with less clout.

We’ve never found a solution to that problem. We probably never will. We each rightfully value our freedom – and all the benefits freedom delivers — too much to over constrain ourselves. Even when some use their power against the rest of us. Besides, it’s only human to be tempted to want such power, if and when we amass it.

But periodically we remember what the Revolution meant, declare enough is enough, and enact new rules to keep unbridled self-interest from destroying the system.

The last forty years have seen America deliver spectacularly … for some. But overzealous pursuit of self-interest led many of us to ignore the less powerful and rationalize their lack of clout as a sign of incompetence. Now self-interest is leading some to suppress others’ freedoms to force conformance to desired behaviors. Intolerance and bigotry are once again on the rise.

No community can survive such trends. Because communities – and the success they enable individuals to achieve — are more than just people who happen to hang out together. We each must be willing to belong. Which requires tolerance.

Righting the ship won’t be easy. We can start by committing to think critically and objectively about all public matters. Particularly in the selection of leaders. We need to reject those who would encourage division and paranoia to line their and their friends’ pockets or maintain their hold on power.

On this Independence Day I hope we will remember the Revolution is not something that happened once, long ago. It’s an ongoing story, constantly evolving. To fulfill its potential, we must breathe new life into it, every day. Particularly now when the American experiment is once again in peril.

Mark is a former mayor of San Carlos. He and Seth Rosenblatt host a podcast at exploring the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science.

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