“I want to point out that people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color, or women—once they organize and protest and create movements—have a voice no government can suppress.”
–Howard Zinn (1)
Just as you should familiarize yourself with a text’s context before you can fully understand it, the same applies to our examination of the U. S. political system. This context is the water that our political system drinks and the air that it breathes. The contextual features we want to highlight are basic historical facts that might be uncomfortable to acknowledge but that have impacted American politics for centuries and continue to do so. Put another way, any student who wants to understand the American political system would be well served if they acknowledge the following four contextual features that define much of the landscape in which our political system operates.
Troubled Race Relations
America’s race relations have been marked by slavery, theft, discrimination, segregation, violence, and inequality. (2) Notwithstanding the many fine personal, familial, and work relationships ordinary Americans develop across racial and ethnic lines, American society has always been fraught with racial and ethnic bigotry, racialized politics, and racialized economic opportunities. Of course, the entire American Experiment is built on land from which indigenous peoples were removed by disease, conflict, trickery, and force. America is the artifact of the British colonial empire that, in turn, continued the colonization until there was nothing left of indigenous peoples but marginal land and population remnants.
Try thinking of all the generic means by which one group of people can assault and dehumanize another group of people, and then consider that they have probably been done by some Americans to other Americans. We can start with the foundational sins: the near extermination of Native American peoples and 250 years of institutionalized slavery inflicted upon people abducted from Africa and their decedents. The mind reels at the challenge of adding up the stolen potential and the transferred wealth inherent in these sins. If we go beyond the foundational sins, the list of barbarisms is remarkable. Consider America’s many race riots in which Whites targeted Blacks, (3) or the number of violent uprisings caused by brutality and ill treatment of Blacks by police and local authorities. (4) Ponder the 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II. (5) Keep in mind the decades of lynchings that killed thousands of mostly African Americans and that served to “police” the behavior of all those who were not directly affected. (6) Think of church burnings, voter suppression, segregation, and militarized police violence that falls disproportionately on people of color. Consider America’s incarceration culture. Imagine a cross burned on your front lawn by an organization that for decades could freely march down the streets of any city in America without censure or repercussion.
The legacy of racial violence and ill will continues to reverberate through American society. It takes the form of disparities between Whites and Blacks on fundamental indicators such as income, wealth, educational attainment, and health. It also poisons our politics. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American president. For his entire presidency, he endured allegations that he wasn’t an American citizen and that he had allegiances to radical Islamic terrorists, which is a pretty good indication of how a portion of American society sees Blacks as illegitimate political actors. And while majorities of Whites and Blacks both acknowledge America’s troubled race relations, strong majorities of Blacks think that America has not gone far enough to ensure equal rights, while strong majorities of Whites think it has. (7) These feelings are remarkably resistant to change and may remain politically relevant long into the future, manifesting themselves in different ways in different contexts.
Crushing Inequality Marked by Attempts to Moderate It
While it is certainly true that the American colonies were blessed with relative economic equality and class fluidity compared to aristocratic European countries of the time—at least among free whites—the United States has been marked by enormous income and wealth gaps through most of its history. Starting from relative equality in the colonial period, economists have found that “a long steep rise in US inequality took place between 1800 and 1860.” (8) In antebellum America—that is, pre-Civil War— public records document considerable wealth disparity of land, goods, and slaves. (9) The situation only got worse after the Civil War when we entered a long period of robber baron capitalism, and American inequality peaked in the late 1920s just before the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. In response to the Great Depression, New Deal policies encouraged unions, regulated the financial sector, provided Social Security and other safety net programs, and put people to work on government projects. Those policies combined with the economic stimulation from World War II to create what is known as the Great Compression—the period from 1937 to the early 1970s when middle- and lower-income people gained more from economic growth than did the rich. The Great Compression essentially made the United States into a broadly middle-class society. However, corporations and the wealthy fought to eradicate the domestic policies that benefited the middle and lower classes. In foreign policy, globalization and “free trade” agreements put American workers in direct competition with their poorly paid counterparts in countries that lacked America’s union protections, worker-safety regulations, and environmental regulations.
Beginning in the 1960s and accelerating thereafter, Democrats and Republicans alike pursued policies designed to make the rich even more comfortable. Corporate tax rates and the marginal tax rates on wealthy individuals dropped like a stone. Most of the New Deal’s financial regulations were dropped in favor of deregulating financial institutions and the confusing “products” they developed, such as collateralized debt obligations. Ordinary Americans, in an attempt to maintain their lifestyle despite stagnant wages, job offshoring, less state support for education, and generally fewer economic opportunities, floated an increasing amount of debt: house mortgages with nothing down, student loans, credit cards, increasingly longer-term car loans, etc. In turn, this financialization of the economy made bankers and financiers even more wealthy. The 2008 Great Recession was the inevitable result. America’s political system responded—not by helping ordinary Americans—but by bailing out the bankers and the con artists who crashed the system with their irresponsibility. This is one of the most salient facts about the context of contemporary American politics, especially given that inequality has reached a new peak to rival the one that existed in the 1920s. The middle class in America has been hollowed out by wage stagnation, increased debt, and federal policies that benefit upper income families and corporations. The richest 1 percent of families in America possess more wealth than the entire middle class combined. (10)
Economic inequality is not simply a fact about the economy, for economic power translates into political power. Money buys legitimacy for ideas that otherwise would not be popular. Money pre-selects viable politicians before voters ever get a chance to weigh in. Money structures the media in ways so that some issues and policy options receive more coverage than do others. Money buys direct access to politicians and decision makers. As Lawrence Lessig once said, speaking of elected politicians, “A world where you have to spend half your time raising money means there’s this small number of people on whom you’re dependent and they have a huge influence.” (11)
America is an Immigrant Society that Often Vilifies Its Immigrants
The United States is an immigrant society. North and South America were initially settled by nomadic peoples who crossed from the Eurasian continent when sea levels were low during the last Ice Age. Following “discovery” by Europeans, North America was colonized by the British, French, Spanish, and other people from Western Europe. In 1619, they brought slaves to what later became Virginia, and probably earlier to Spanish Florida. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the United States continued to attract immigrants, especially from Ireland, Germany, various places in eastern and southern Europe, China, and Japan. In the 1920s, the United States placed national origin quotas on immigration that benefited immigrants from northern and western Europe. These quotas were dropped in 1965. According to the Census Bureau, the number of foreign-born Americans peaked at 14.8 percent of the total population in 1890, dropped to a low of 4.7 percent in 1970, and reached a mini-peak of 12.9 percent in 2010.
Americans often pride themselves on their immigrant ancestors and on immigration’s role in American identity. We see ourselves defined by our common belief in American ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy rather than by our ethnicity or national origin. We see ourselves as a melting pot. Indeed, consider the Statue of Liberty, which features poet and immigrant-activist Emma Lazarus’ ode to America’s immigrants:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
—Emma Lazarus, 1883
At the same time, America has witnessed tremendous conflict over immigration, and immigrants have been targeted by nativist and xenophobic groups throughout much of American history. Xenophobia is a fear of foreigners, while nativism is a more organized political philosophy opposed to immigration; it favors limiting the power of and opportunities for immigrants. In the 1850s, an entire U.S. political party—the nativist American Party, more popularly known as the Know Nothing Party—took over the state legislature in Massachusetts, elected the mayor of Chicago, captured 40 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, and had short-term successes elsewhere. The Know Nothings directed their hatred particularly at Catholic immigrants. The party fragmented over slavery, with the pro-slavery Know Nothings tending to end up in the Democratic party and the anti-slavery Know Nothings aligning with the Republicans.
The spirit of the Know Nothings lived on, however, in various movements such as the anti-Catholic American Protective Association and the Ku Klux Klan. Nativists argue for strict limits or bans on immigration and limits on immigrants’ ability to become citizens, vote, or hold office. American immigration laws have been shaped by nativist sentiment. In 1882, for example, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that banned immigration from China. In the 1920s, the resurgent Ku Klux Klan targeted Jews and Catholic immigrants as well as blacks. John F. Kennedy’s bid for the presidency in 1960 stimulated some anti-Catholic agitation, but not enough to derail his candidacy. President Donald Trump, when announcing his bid for the White House in 2015, denounced Mexicans crossing the U. S. border as “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Nativism today has more to do with whites fearing brown immigrants than the nativism of years past when Protestant whites feared other whites such as Catholic Irish, Catholic and Jewish Germans, and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox people from eastern and southern Europe. But nativism is not a philosophy reserved for Whites; it can also be found among people of color who fear that immigration will create unwanted economic competition or associative stigma.
Corporate Personhood and Privilege
“Corporations are people, my friend,” said Mitt Romney to a heckler when he was running for president in 2012. “No, they’re not!” shouted someone else from the crowd. (12) That small exchange illustrates not only a fault line in American politics, but a defining feature of it. When the founders began the United States Constitution with “We the people of the United States,” they were talking about living, breathing, mortal human beings gathering together to create “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” They had no idea that corporations and other artificial entities would, over time and with the help of politicians and judges, establish themselves as people in our political system.
Corporations are artificial legal entities sanctioned by governments to accomplish specific economic tasks. Over the history of the American republic, corporations have come to be regarded by courts and the law as persons, and they have taken on many of the political rights once reserved only for human beings. Corporations even hijacked the Fourteenth Amendment’s language that “no state shall. . .deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” That language was originally intended to protect actual people—particularly African Americans in the wake of slavery’s demise—from abuse by state authorities but has since been used by conservatives and business lawyers to expand corporate rights. According to James Nelson, a retired Montana state supreme court justice, the idea “that corporations are constitutional persons is the Supreme Court’s bastard child that can never prove its legitimacy.” (13)
While corporations cannot cast ballots on election day, the list of corporate rights is breathtaking. Corporate charters are contracts that cannot be altered by governments. Corporations have due process and equal protection via the Fourteenth Amendment. Corporations have Fifth Amendment protections against being deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” just compensation for private property loss, and protection against double jeopardy. Corporations are covered by the Fourth Amendment’s protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” They have the right to jury trials in criminal and civil cases. Corporations have First Amendment freedom of speech protections for their commercial speech, and they can spend unlimited amounts of money advocating political causes and supporting candidates as an exercise of their freedom of speech. And private corporations have religious freedom protections, meaning they can limit employees’ privileges based on the corporation owner’s religious convictions. (14)
Not only are corporations considered people under the American political system, they are more vocal, more tenacious, longer lived, and possess better access to political decision makers than do ordinary individuals. This is an inherently corrosive situation for a democratic republic, because corporations are, by definition, amoral entities that pathologically pursue profit and growth with little heed for democracy. (15) Large corporations—and that’s really what we’re talking about here rather than mom and pop operations and other small businesses—have the resources and the persistence to shape public policies to create monopoly power, suppress wages, and put up barriers to competition. This fact, combined with the power of wealthy individuals, may be one of the main reasons why most ordinary people have little faith in the way democracy works in America. (16) For instance, economist Thomas Philippon wrote that “The real labor income of the typical worker has grown by less than one-third of 1 percent per year for nearly two decades. This explains in part why much of the middle-class distrusts politicians, believes the economic system is rigged, and even rejects capitalism altogether.” (17)
These, then, are the four contextual landmarks that help define the American political system. It is not anti-American or unpatriotic to acknowledge them. Think about this chapter in these terms: For individuals, a mark of maturity is the ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, learn from them, and move forward. The contextual landmarks described here are mistakes that America has made and continues to make. They deeply affect the nature of our politics. Not only do they help us understand our political system, they are markers for whether we can become a mature political system that faces up to its past, learns from its mistakes, and moves forward in ways that improve ordinary Americans’ lives.
Acknowledging these mistakes does not lead us to specific policy recommendations. To see the current peak of inequality in America does not mean that we must advocate strict equality for everyone. We can accept that a certain amount of inequality may be healthy for a society, even if we reject the clearly unhealthy level of inequality now. Progressive policies to reduce inequality may very well be called for. To see the obvious legacies of slavery and the colonization of North America, as well as contemporary injustices, does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that formal reparations are required–although one might easily argue for them. However, past and present injustices do demand policies that promote social justice and truly equal opportunity that rewards merit and effort. A mature democracy can address difficult issues like these by using imagination and building consensus. An attenuated democracy cannot.
What if . . . ?
What if you were writing this textbook? The four contextual features discussed above—race relations, inequality, immigration, and corporate personhood—aren’t the only prominent landmarks that define American politics. If you were writing this book, what other contextual features would you want to highlight? Why? How do they affect politics in the United States?
References and Notes
- Howard Zinn, “Introduction,” in Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History of the United States. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004. Page 28.
- That’s a heavy charge, but it’s probably the first thing space alien scientists would note about the United States. If you are doubtful, here’s a short reading list: Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books, 2016. Edward E. Baptist, The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2014. Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Anchor Books, 2009. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014. David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. New York: Back Bay Books, 2008.
- A partial list of white-black conflict includes the New York City Draft Riots in 1863 and the racial turn they took; New Orleans in 1866; Wilmington in 1898; Atlanta in 1906; Omaha in 1919; Chicago in 1919; Tulsa in 1921.
- A partial list of riots and uprisings includes Detroit in 1967; Newark in 1967; Miami in 1980; Los Angeles in 1992; Cincinnati in 2001; Ferguson in 2014; Baltimore in 2015.
- Richard Reeves, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese Internment in World War II. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015. Lawson Fusao Inada, editor, Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience. Berkley, CA: Heyday Books, 2000.
- Philip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. New York: Random House, 2002. Ralph Ginzburg, 100 Years of Lynchings. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1962.
- Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Anna Brown, and Kiana Cox, “Race in America 2019,” The Pew Research Center. April 9, 2019.
- Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson, “Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1700,” CEPR Policy Portal. June 16, 2016.
- Gloria L. Main, “Inequality in Early America: The Evidence from Probate Records of Massachusetts and Maryland,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 7(4): Spring 1977. Pages 559-581.
- Anne Helen Petersen, “America’s Hollow Middle Class,” Vox. December 15, 2020. Dani Alexis Ryskamp, “The Life in The Simpsons is No Longer Attainable.” The Atlantic. December 29, 2020. Wealth figures come from the Federal Reserve, Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. Since 1989. Updated October 1, 2021.
- Quoted in Maggie Koerth-Baker, “Everyone Knows Money Influences Politics … Except Scientists,” fivethirtyeight.com.June 4, 2019.
- Philip Rucker, “Mitt Romney Says ‘Corporations are People’,” The Washington Post.August 11, 2011.
- The history of how corporations became vested with the political rights intended for natural persons (i.e., actual human beings) is too long and detailed to present here. See Adam Winkler, We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018. Jeffrey D. Clements, Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012. Doug Hammerstrom, The Hijacking of the Fourteenth Amendment. Published by ReclaimDemocracy.org. Adam Winkler “‘Corporations Are People’ is Built on an Incredible 19th Century Lie,” The Atlantic. March 5, 2018. James C. Nelson, “There’s No More Activist Court Than the US Supreme Court,” Counterpunch. February 3, 2022.
- Aside from the sources cited above, see also Jan Edwards, et al., Timeline of Personhood Rights and Powerscreated by Move to Amend. William Meyers, The Santa Clara Blues: Corporate Personhood Versus Democracy. III Publishing, 2000. Alex Park, “10 Supreme Court Rulings—Before Hobby Lobby—That Turned Corporations into People,” Mother Jones. July 10, 2014.
- Joel Baken, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. New York: Free Press, 2004. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007.
- David Kent, “The Countries Where People are Most Dissatisfied with how Democracy is Working,” The Pew Research Center. May 31, 2019.
- Thomas Philippon, “The U. S. Only Pretends to Have Free Markets,” The Atlantic. October 29, 2019.
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