What Jefferson wanted more than anything else was severely limited government, administered by modest and reluctant representatives who would rather be home tending their fields. He wanted well-educated, self-sufficient and vigilant citizens to do whatever it took to protect their liberties and their natural rights. He wanted our leaders and representatives to be high-minded, virtuous (in the Roman sense of the term), selfless and exceptionally frugal with our tax dollars. He wanted everyone to be treated identically by what he called the machine of the law. He wanted an American republic that turned away from war and glory and dedicated itself instead to science and the arts. He wanted America to mind its own business while striving to become the world’s template of good government, enlightenment and human happiness.
He did not want the United States to be two countries: one for the rich minority, which lived above the law and believed to be entitled to wealth and privilege, the other consisting of the masses who scratched out a living on the other side of the gated communities. He had seen that in France on the eve of its cataclysmic revolution. He wanted every American to have a comfortable sufficiency, and he hoped nobody would accumulate obscene amounts of money and property.
He wanted government functionaries to be hesitant to take either liberty or money from the American people. He spoke of “a few plain duties performed by a few honest men.”
I want to live in that America. I want to live in that America.
And here we are now, a bloated world empire, a welfare state, undereducated, complacent, self-satisfied; pretending for the purposes of a quadrennial pageant of mythology to be a republic or a democracy.
When I was growing up, I thought America was “the world’s best hope,” as Jefferson put it, and I believed that we usually did the right thing in the world, exemplified lofty ideals and sought the path of due process, peace and wanted to lift up every American until he or she could enjoy the American dream. I knew we weren’t perfect, but I believed that we were still on that long trajectory toward national perfection.
We were educating more people. Title IX forced our public institutions to provide equal access to women. The Civil Rights bills were grinding down the pillars of open and structural racism. Affirmative action was lifting millions onto a level playing field for the exercise of merit. The raft of environmental legislation of the 1960s and 1970s — clean air, clean water, the EPA, the Wilderness Act — was breathtaking then, and it seems nearly impossible to conceive today. The federal courts were forcing bigoted and benighted states to honor the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The courts were insisting that we live up to the spirit of our foundational principles, not merely the letter.
Then something happened and we fell apart, tribalized ourselves and gave up the quest for American enlightenment. We stood by while the maldistribution of wealth — by which I mean access to the fruits of life — was fed steroids by public policy, enabled by the labyrinth of our tax code, openly encouraged by Republican and some Democratic administrations, and somehow justified as an engine of general prosperity. During this time, the term millionaire was replaced by billionaire, and now billionaire doesn’t really describe the profoundly superrich who now own America. When Senator X answers his phone, it isn’t to take a call from a goat dairy farmer in Broken Bow, Nebr. It is to take the call of a coal mining executive. And — can you believe it? — that senator expresses doubt about the global climate hoax on the floor of the Senate.
It’s kind of a cliché to be worried about one’s country. But I am worried about my country. Hamilton understood where we were heading better than Jefferson, but it cannot all be about power and money and oil and empire and privilege. We may not still exemplify the values of an agrarian republic, but if we are America, we must always be striving to respect human rights abroad and at home, to treat every citizen identically, irrespective of race, gender, creed, tribe or orientation.
Of all the nations in the world, we need to be the one that shows the most reluctance to use force. We need to be a nation that refuses to be anything less than at or near the top of the charts in literacy, numeracy, science, the arts; infant mortality, longevity, access to health care. We need to be the nation where we retire or impeach all self-serving politicians. We need to be the nation in which the president of the United States is held to the same standard as a citizen chosen at random, and every citizen strives to have the character of the best presidents in American history.
Reading the paragraphs above, most of my friends would shake their heads or laugh sorrowfully and say, “Where’ve you been? We haven’t been that country for more than 150 years and maybe never.” That we can now find our founding ideals quaint or naïve or funny is a sign of how severely we have fallen.
We aren’t going to be that nation ever again, unless there is a global collapse or environmental cataclysm that shatters the existing world system. And who wants either of those?
We failed to be vigilant. We permitted a vicious class system to spring up in America based not on birth but on wealth. Wealth and power now buy our governments. Those who try to say this is not so are lying to us and perhaps even to themselves. The rich and powerful area always at the table. The poor are sneered away and the middle class is not welcome anymore. Whatever the surface government of the United States does or pretends to do, very powerful forces behind the government move senators and representatives around like marionettes, and much of what happens in America and among the other global elites has no oversight or regulation. None. The most powerful individuals and entities on earth are out of control. We no longer even try to get them back under control.
I’m painting a pretty gloomy picture. America is so rich that the wealthiest 1 percent can own 95 percent of the wealth of the country, but even the crumbs they leave behind are large enough to buy off rebellion. Forget Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake.” Let them watch widescreen TVs. Let them have plenty of food, fuel and pocket money, and the great mass of people will forget that they have lost their republic. Feed them gladiatorial sports and Velveeta, reality TV and Meat Lovers Pizza, fill all screens with sexy actresses, and they will go to sleep in their Barcaloungers.
I don’t think we are likely to get much better. We may get worse. I don’t think there is any true revolutionary feeling in America. Grumbling yes, but rebellion and revolution, no. Still, I don’t want to give up and I don’t to be defeatist. We can, I believe, do three things:
- First, we can get into the arena and fight for our republic. You are going to make some enemies, and even your friends are going to roll their eyes or worry a little about you, but you have to go to the city council meetings, the Iowa caucuses, the town hall forums, the hearing about the wind towers or the waste disposal project. When people of modesty and integrity stand up and speak with muted passion about republican values, others listen.
- Second, we can remember. Our educational system is in danger of forgetting the vision and achievement of the founders, in part because many of them were slaveholders, virtually all were men and men of privilege and in part because there is nothing very sexy in civics. We must not forget the great legacy of the Enlightenment. If we keep that flame alive, our children or grandchildren will discover what we took for granted and left behind on our way to the garage sale.
- Third, we can form little Jeffersonian enclaves of like-minded individuals who like to read and engage in conversation and argue with civility. Jefferson and his Enlightenment friends spoke of The Republic of Letters. Today we might call it networking or a virtual community. If all the Jeffersonians in my zip code stood up, there would be fewer than 100 in the club. If all the Jeffersonians in my state stood up there would be thousands of Jeffersonians. I wish I knew them. If all the Jeffersonians in America stood up there would be perhaps a million, or maybe even 5 million, depending on how strictly you define Jeffersonian.
By all means, let us find each other electronically and share ideas, cheer each other on, encourage each other to be our best selves, and let the world know that we exist, we matter, and we mean to be heard. It’s time for the Jeffersonians to stop standing at the margins of American society, sipping pinot noir and listening to classical guitar and shaking their heads over the Fall of America. If this is going to be done, it’s the reluctant army of the Jeffersonians that is going to have to do it.