McGill history prof, J.M. Opal, argues that America has become what the American people rebelled against almost 250-years ago.
A decade ago, as the scale of the disaster in Iraq began to sink in, American historians often compared the United States to ancient Rome. Both seemed to suffer from an imperial disease whose symptoms began with overreach and ended in collapse.
This is a useful way for Americans like me to consider our troubles abroad. But when it comes to our democracy’s problems at home, the closer parallel is with 18th century Britain, the “mother country” from which the United States broke away in 1776.
Britons of that time enjoyed many liberties unknown to their favourite bogeymen, the French. These freedoms had many roots, including the Magna Carta of 1215, the Bill of Rights from 1689 and various parts of English common law. Most Britons saw their country as God’s favourite and thanked their “constitution” — a general term for established forms of law and government — for their rising glory.
Yet for all the liberties it tolerated, that constitution’s real goal was to shield wealth and privilege from popular demands.
In the House of Lords, the privileged group was the aristocracy that still owned about 80 per cent of all the arable land in England. In the House of Commons, the favoured ones were rising merchants, bankers and industrialists. Together these old and new elites ran the show.
For example, British law treated labour organizations as “conspiracies” while respecting the fortunes that stockholders made as untouchable. A brutal criminal code complemented a draconian view of poverty.Opal argues that America, like Britain before it, has been rigged to favour its own aristocracy. Gerrymandering is America's "rotten borough." A deliberately groomed Supreme Court dispenses rightwing justice. Labour is vanquished by capital at every turn. Wealth has been drained out of the working classes and into the pockets of the new aristocracy, the pilfering enabled by Congress instead blamed on foreigners, "them."
Strict suffrage laws and rotten boroughs insulated real power from the political circus, not to mention the angry crowds that rose up against everything from low wages to high bread prices to anti-poaching laws.
During periods of democratic renewal, such as Reconstruction, the New Deal and the Civil Rights era, American politics pushed the constitution beyond its original intentions. In these creative moments, active citizens shaped a more just society.
But over the last 50 years, another alliance of old and new has taken up arms (sometimes literally) behind constitutional bulwarks, rolling back much of that progress.
This alliance includes white voters who keep their traditional supremacy through gerrymandered districts, restrictive voting laws and mass incarceration of non-white people.
It also includes corporate interests that halt efforts to protect workers and the environment, to say nothing of sick, poor and elderly Americans. These plutocrats not only decide elections with their campaign contributions but also write legislation through their lobbyists.A time to rise up.
In America now, just as in Britain then, most people object. They would rather have clean air and water, secure jobs and pensions and a fair distribution of wealth. They would rather not see most of their fellow citizens living one paycheque to the next, nor watch schoolchildren prepare for the next mass shooting. They would prefer to live in a good society rather than a great power.
But in America now, just as in Britain then, the political system won’t allow it. Even if non-white majorities pile up in some congressional districts, the Senate and Electoral College will neutralize them.
Even if dozens of Bernie Sanders acolytes get into office, their ideas will run aground in congressional committees awash in corporate influence.
And if progressive hopes ever make it onto the books, federal courts stocked with hard-right judges will strike them down — no matter what kind of “blue wave” arrives in 2020, 2024 or indeed 2040.
In short, there is no reason to assume that under the current constitution, the demographic and cultural changes of the past generation will fundamentally challenge Donald Trump’s America.Donald Trump persuaded a significant minority of the American public that he could set things right. He would drain the swamp. He would make America great again. Instead he fed them an array of straw men and whipping boys even as he and the Republican Congress ensured America's aristocracy would continue to grow richer and more powerful at the expense of their less advantaged countrymen.
Opal doesn't directly call for revolution. That would be seditious at the very least. Yet he doesn't endorse any alternative cures either.