"Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor." -- Thomas Jefferson
These days America is at war with itself. The fight within our borders is played out most clearly in the halls of our legislature. The debates on human rights, gun control, climate change, gay marriage, "entitlement" programs, job initiatives, bank regulations and tax reform reveal the great cultural and ideological chasm widening among America's citizenry.
The issue at hand is no less than how do we move forward in this new century. What values will we represent to the world and to each other. Will America be the standard bearer of morally functional democracy or the example of how it can go dangerously wrong?
Democracy according to mid-nineteenth century philosopher Alexander Tocqueville can be influenced for good or evil by what he termed "the tyranny of the majority." In those days, the nation was embroiled in socio-economic struggles of monumental proportions. First and foremost was the issue of human rights: slave labor, child labor, right to organize, debtor's prison, women as property, African and Native American genocide.
America's 19th century majority committed atrocities on both the Native and African populations and anyone else who was not white, male, and powerful. The saddest part of all was that this majority felt morally justified by their evil tyranny. It was an ugly dehumanized world where power, privilege and raw unrestrained capitalism trumped ordinary and basic civil rights.
Any study of 19th century history reveals that slave owners and slave traders believed their individual right to pursue profit under "free" market rules were infringed upon with the abolition of human enslavement. It seems slavery was the purest expression of the laissez-faire invisible hand of capitalism. The Civil War and subsequent outlawing of slavery ushered in a new era of democracy -- one that we are still debating today.
It begs the question: when are individual economic rights given priority over individual civil rights? As Tocqueville observed after touring the U.S. in 1835, "I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny." And so we could observe the same today.
The America of today continues to struggle with the age-old issue of a capitalism without limits that tyrannizes the vulnerable minority. We have a new class of enslavement in our 21st century society -- a growing economic divide that threatens our national security. Forty-seven percent of Americans (out of a population of 300 million), according to Fox News, do not pay federal income taxes. What Fox neglects to add is that many of these 47 percent have incomes below the federal poverty line.
These are the "victims" Mitt Romney named. But not victims of their own minds as Romney has imagined them, but victims of a system that has permanently disenfranchised them from normal access to a reasonably comfortable American life.
This fact should astonish us -- nearly one-fourth of the American public is entrapped in a hopeless poverty that seemingly has no end in sight.
Yet we debate with no compunction from a platform of our own moral hypocrisy: the tax issue brings up the question of whose freedom we are protecting: the individual economic rights of those earning $450,000 or more who are asked to share a small portion of the burden of our working poor with a 4 percent increase in taxes -- one that would help balance the scales for the millions who cannot pay at all? Do we really feel it is an infringement of individual economic liberty to ask someone with an income of $500,000 to contribute $20,000 more to a country in the depths of economic despair?
This is a country with 14 million people on the unemployment lines, 10 million more who have lost their homes or are at risk of doing so, and millions more who are due to be homeless through no fault of their own. Since the financial crisis wreaked havoc on ordinary middle class life, there are tens of millions more American citizens with little or no income who are not counted in the unemployment rolls -- former business owners who stand on food bank lines, college graduates who can find nothing more than part-time hourly wage work, or 50-year-old consultants past their hiring prime who rake leaves for former neighbors. Nearly fifty million Americans in the "land of the free" are trapped in the bonds of irreversible destitution.
This is a nation in crisis -- spiritual, moral and economic. A nation that due to the excesses of our bankers, economic leaders, inadequate legislators and a system gone awry stands at the crossroads of another decade of callous indifference or a decade where we at last turn the corner toward moral restitution.
Where have we gone so righteously off-track that we have no concern, compassion or shared responsibility for those who lose sleep at night for fear they cannot put food on the table, keep the heat and lamps burning, and roofs over their heads? It is a question of the ages -- one of historic and biblical proportions, and one we are asked to answer in this first month of 2013.
The working poor and the middle classes are what keep the country moving forward. What those of affluence can remember is not that "the poor" are such a burden and drain on them personally or on society at large, but that they instead keep things running as efficiently as they do. Minimum wage workers operate our small businesses, restaurants, fast food chains, factories, hotels, retail stores, supermarkets, childcare, domestic help, gas stations, and everywhere unskilled labor is required. They are millions upon millions and they comprise at least one quarter of the American economy.
And yet these millions are denied basic human rights -- the right to a living wage, to decent working conditions, to skills training and education, adequate medical care, affordability of healthy food and basic utilities including telephone, internet, electricity, water, and gas. The less they make, the more their bosses hoard, and the more investors like Mitt Romney profit.
Where in our moral compass do we feel it is justified to pay 14 percent federal taxes at an income of $14 million per annum (Mitt Romney's 2011 tax return) and demand those with incomes of $17,700 to contribute 15 percent in lieu of schooling, doctors or basic necessities? It should be for every single hard-heartened self-serving person in this country to take one week and experience what it feels like to lie awake at night fearing the electric company shut-off and gathering change from your pockets to put gas in your car to make it to a job that pays $7.25 an hour. It's a travesty of justice that as a nation we have not morally reconciled in over two centuries.
As we watch our contemporary leaders in Washington, D.C. debate which citizens to tax more and which to tax less, which programs to increase and which to cut, we can only reach back to the words of other American leaders of the past to understand how to move forward. In the 19th century, Republican President Abraham Lincoln summed up the question with this simple edict: "This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor." Yet that is precisely the debate at hand.
In the continuing socioeconomic debate of this 21st century, what will our new Democratic and Republican leaders say? And more importantly still, will we demand that they act on our moral compass and not theirs? The moment has arrived where we ask our leaders to broaden their view beyond their own immediate needs and to include the real-life experience of millions of voiceless Americans. The continuing debate in our halls of justice is about so much more than taxes and spending cuts. It is about shared responsibility -- the essence of a morally functional democracy.
In the end, we are each for responsible for the other. To paraphrase a powerful spiritual truth, whoever cares for the least among us, also cares for himself. In 2013, let our voices be loud and firm and urge our leaders to balance the scales towards a shared prosperity for all.