Excerpt from the introduction to The Great American Disconnect – Seven Fundamental Threats To Our Democracy, a new book by Long Island Press publisher Jed Morey. E-book available October 7th. Paperback edition due out Nov. 7th.
No other nation in history has been so adroit at acquiring and hoarding resources as the United States of America. The combination of democracy and capitalism in America has been so thoroughly successful with respect to expansion and the accumulation of wealth that we consume a quarter of the world’s resources despite having only 5 percent of the population. This unbelievable ascent to the top of the imperial heap is the result of an insatiable appetite for progress at any cost. This is further underscored by periods of fervent jingoism that rationalize horrific behavior abroad under the guise of spreading freedom and democracy.
From a purely political perspective, the New Millennium has ushered in a resounding victory for democracy and with it, the greatest placebo ever absorbed into the global body politic. Citizens of the world have bought into the hype that the American dream is now available anywhere on the globe and is as attainable as a cubic zirconia necklace on a late-night infomercial. For my money, it is the inimitable H.L. Mencken who captured the folly of American democracy as a means to prosperity nearly a century ago, saying, “Of all those ancient promises there is none more comforting than the one to the effect that the lowly shall inherit the earth. It is at the bottom of the dominant religious system of the modern world, and it is at the bottom of the dominant political system. Democracy gives it a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth.”
Even Mencken would be impressed by the effectiveness of today’s political hucksters who peddle faux democracy from their ideological apothecaries. Modern-day snake oil salesmen dressed in suits adorned with flag pins on their lapels preach the gospel of the American dream with the zeal of born-again evangelists. Their wide-eyed followers devour their every word believing they too might someday reach the Promised Land.
Gone are the days of dreaming of savings accounts and a pension; this is the era of winning lottery tickets and salvation through instant affluence. The most troubling phenomenon is the Gospel of Jesus Christ as capitalist that has somehow tethered itself to our new collective interpretation of democracy. This mixing of religious and ideological metaphors has seeped into the consciousness of American politics and given life to a bizarre fundamentalist ideology that has inculcated the public with the notion that financial success is the product of divine right. According to this newly adopted testament of faith, Jesus Christ is a champion of corporate rights and free markets who offers his disciples unfettered VIP access to the pearly gates of the hereafter.
“All these forms of happiness, of course, are illusory. They don’t last,” warned Mencken. “The democrat, leaping into the air to flap his wings and praise God, is forever coming down with a thump. The seeds of his disaster lie in his own stupidity; he can never get rid of the naïve delusion—so beautifully Christian!—that happiness is something to be got by taking it away from the other fellow.”
It is the idea that only the uncompromising person in the self-righteous pursuit of wealth emerges triumphant in a life that has separated humans from their humanity. Community, environment and the welfare of others have been subjugated by a new dogma that places faith over reason, prosperity over compassion.
And who could argue? We credit democracy with ushering in the most technologically innovative century in recorded history. There have also been real victories along the way. America, as it was originally conceived, was a place where inalienable rights were intended exclusively for white, male property owners. But the system was intuitive and flexible enough to allow its citizens to battle one another and hammer out universal suffrage and civil rights. It is also our right to freely and openly criticize the government and protest perceived injustices. No system works perfectly for all of its inhabitants but liberties such as these that we often take for granted are glorious enough to make America’s democratic system enviable by most standards.
But today we are on a path that threatens to turn back the clock in a dangerous way. Capitalism and Christianity, mutually exclusive by design, are no longer distinct from one another under the all-encompassing umbrella of democracy. In order to provide cover for ignominious policies, politicians and pundits routinely reference the Founding Fathers. They consider them omniscient and omnipresent deities, instead of the fallible and mortal beings they were. To question them is to commit heresy. They speak of the Constitution as the testament delivered unto us from on high, never to be doubted or altered. Yet many of the provisions they hold dear are amendments, which implies that the Constitution is amorphous and was always intended as such.
This is not an unpatriotic book, though some will deride this characterization and misinterpret its intent. It is an honest critique of a system of government that allows for its very existence. It is this self-awareness that makes it decidedly hopeful as it comes from a grateful and objective perspective—albeit grateful for the freedom to objectively verbalize our hypocrisy.
I am an insider, an avowed critic of the hand that feeds me. I’m not writing in exile or behind a prison wall, but that is not to say we aren’t metaphorically imprisoned by the image we project of ourselves. Much of what we believe to be true about democracy is belied by our very real actions and circumstances.
Americans are trapped by the conviction that we live in a free society despite having the highest incarceration rate per capita of any nation in the world. We see ourselves as the purveyors of peace and democracy, having defeated the Communist menace and dethroned dictators, yet no other nation in modern times has initiated unprovoked foreign wars more than we have or dropped a nuclear bomb (twice) on its enemies. And many of the dictators we have overthrown were of our own creation yet ceased to be useful in our imperialist endeavors.
We believe in the theory of fair competition and the ability to achieve success through hard work and discipline but we exist within a system that discourages competitiveness and has consolidated 40 percent of the nation’s wealth into the hands of 1 percent of the population.
Our state of denial has caused us to drift far from the nation we believe ourselves to be while holding tightly to an image of the nation we wish to be.