Ways of Seeing: Wealthy are threatening democracy
My father would have been 100 years old this month, so I’ve been thinking about him lately. And since I am obsessed and depressed these days with the sorry state of our nation, I’ve been reflecting particularly on his idealistic and positive vision of America.
My father used to describe America’s Democracy as a Meritocracy. By that he meant that people with merit — people who were honest, smart, hard-working, and careful of the common good — would rise to leadership, both in their own fields and in government. People of Merit would be in charge. Good People would make the decisions that affected all of us.
I think he ardently believed this, plus it worked as a narrative to inspire his children to become honest, hard-working, and careful of the common good. I can imagine that in his own young years, the notion of rising by your merits might have been a lifeboat in a sea of hopelessness.
My father was born into poverty in Appalachian Virginia. He was raised first by his grandmother, then by foster parents, and later by his mother and stepfather. The only description I ever heard from him of his community of birth was “grim.” We never visited there.
He enlisted in the Navy and came through the ranks until he sported ribbons, braid, and stars on his crisp white uniform. After service in World War II he attended Yale Law School on the GI Bill. He married a young woman who would become a medical doctor and they lived pretty much happily ever after, exemplars of the social mobility of the American Dream.
The idea of Meritocracy worked for him. Like J.D. Vance in his recent book, Hillbilly Elegy, he got out, he rose up.
What would my father think about America as a Meritocracy now, at the hundredth anniversary of his birth? I’m sorry to tell you, Dad, but rising up is even harder than it used to be, and the best and brightest are not running the country these days. Instead it’s cronies and crooks and co-conspirators in the dismantlement of government oversight and services.
What about America as a Democracy? Sorry about this too, Dad, but we’ve really morphed into Plutocracy, government by the wealthy.
The current cabinet is jam-packed with multi-millionaires and billionaires. In addition, the 113th Congress had a median net worth of $1,008,767. For the first time in history a majority of members of Congress are millionaires. Millionaires with connections to others’ wealth; each winning senator in the 2012 election raised on average more than $14,000 each day of the election cycle. Ordinary citizens just can’t get into the game.
In contrast, the bottom third of American households own approximately nothing; they have net worth near zero. The bottom half of American households hold only 1 percent of all U.S. wealth.
The interests of ordinary people are not represented by those who pull the levers that run government and industry, with real-life consequences for all of us. Wealthy white men decide which issues get attention and what policies get enacted. Life is hard and getting harder for regular folks, and especially for immigrants and people of color. This is not government by the people or for the people. This is what Plutocracy looks like.
We’re kind of in a big mess, Dad. I’m scared about the future and I worry a lot.
I feel nostalgic for your optimistic outlook on our nation and our government. This is a cynical time. It feels a little naïve to believe that Good People will restore the heart of Democracy and take back control in the end. I try to believe that can happen, but I am not convinced.
Meanwhile, I feel grateful that you don’t have to witness the undoing of America. Rest in peace, Dad. Happy birthday.
Abi Sessions is a retired educator who lives in Cornwall with her husband, Bill. If you wish to join others in Addison County with an interest in creating a welcoming community, please email Abi at [email protected].
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