The Remedies for Their Woes Are Straightforward and Everyone Would Benefit
I left the States in 1968 when I was 25 years old, recently discharged from the army. That’s more than 50 years ago and I only went back a few times to visit my mother. Yet I’ve never stopped thinking about America. About the wonderful country they have, their abundant resources, their industrial and intellectual potential, their bright and creative people, their authentic bluegrass, blues and soul traditions… I write “they” because ever since I became a Spanish citizen 37 years ago I somehow stopped feeling that I fitted into the American mosaic. My view of the United States has become that of the consummate outsider who was once on the inside, looking out.
These days Americans have to ask, how did everything go so wrong? What might be done to set the country straight?
Frankly, this is something I’ve been ruminating on since before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, and I think I have some tentative answers. First we have to agree on the necessities of a proper democracy, one that serves its citizens and the world at large. Yesterday I sat down with a pencil and made a list. If you love pencils and lists you’ll understand my elation in that moment at having America’s problems in my hands. Everything is possible. Here’s the list, by the numbers, in the order they came into my head:
The Pillars of a Viable Democracy
- Universal mutual respect, regardless of individual differences.
- A sense of shared destiny.
- Equality before the law, due process.
- Free and fair elections.
- A mixed economy incorporating the incentives of capitalism and the securities of socialism.
- Good will.
- Solidarity that trumps opportunism.
- Rigorous racial, sexual and social equality. See 7.
- Free and equal public education.
- Basic decency, tolerance, generosity and honesty.
- Acknowledgement of fact-based reality.
- A humane foreign policy.
- A population capable of critical thinking.
- Leadership committed to all of these values.
Here’s What the US Has Today
- A polarized society with virulent disrespect of each side for the other.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Aretha so eloquently put it, is everything, between rich and poor, between black, brown and white; between the left and the right. It’s the lubricant and the shock absorber for everything that takes place in a well-ordered , egalitarian society.
- A overriding sense of “every man for himself.” When the acknowledgment that you’re all in this together is the best glue for holding society together.
- Massive inequality through law enforcement, courts and penal institutions. This is the infirm American justice system and without reforming it nothing is possible. For gross abuse of separation of powers, look no further than the President’s constitutional right to appoint Supreme Court justices for life, just to mention the most obvious. After a period of renewed democracy a constitutional amendment and other judicial reforms would be in order.
- Murky, untrustworthy elections due to the Electoral College, gerrymandering, rigged polling practices, and distrust fomented by a candidate with an eye to manipulating election results by impugning the election and then loosing a Proud-Boys-style army of right-wing goons on the nation. Free and fair elections are the heart of true democracy.
- A predatory capitalistic economy. Capitalism is deeply rooted and needs tempering, controlling its excesses. As for socialism, it shouldn’t be too hard to sell European-style socialism to Americans, notwithstanding a century of anti-socialist brainscrubbing. After all, two of America’s most revered collectives are already thoroughly socialized: the US military and the Congress of the United States. Both enjoy socialized medicine, including dentistry. Both are entitled to a living wage–admittedly the latter live better than the former–and a dignified retirement. All that is lacking is to extend those benefits to the whole of American society. Meanwhile, isn’t it a nice irony that those who benefit most from American socialism are the same politicians who most vehemently denounce any collective solution as “Bolshevik.”
- Ill will. This is more complicated to remedy but it should come as a result of all the other advances in a renovated American democracy.
- Opportunism that trumps solidarity. Also tricky and it won’t be immediate but it will come of its own accord in time, once the conditions are propitious and honesty reigns.
- Crushing racial, sexual and social inequality at all levels. This is perhaps the Americans’ most acute problem. Homicidal racism in the US is business as usual. The streets-to-prison conveyor belt for minorities is working flawlessly and prisons are a growth industry. But the problem is much broader and much more subtle. An entire sector of a country’s population distinguished by skin tone cannot be expected to surivive without respect. African Americans are the second largest racial/ethnic minority in the US, comprising an estimated 13.4% of the population, after Hispanic and Latino Americans’ 18%. (Source: Wikipedia article, “Race and ethnicity in the United States,” figures from 2016.) Can a profound revamping of America’s nominally democratic society rectify these injustices? Only time will tell but the United States will not be a truly civilized country until this issue is faced squarely and dealt with equitably. Again, universal progressive public education will help.
- Prohibitively expensive and unequal education, well below the level of more civilized countries. American education through 12th grade is free, but not equal. Since it’s generally financed by property taxes and they vary widely from neighborhood to neighborhood and state to state, some schools are lavishly rich and others far too poor. Higher education must also be free or inexpensive. These inequalities between the rich and everyone else should sort themselves out with advances in other aspects of society.
- General indecency, intolerance, greed and dishonesty. They could try beginning with effective, Nordic-style schools and pre-schools where decency is taught the same as readin’, writin’ and rithmatic.
- Miracle-based reality. This is one of the hardest ills to combat as religious belief, no matter how absurd or commerce based, doesn’t admit of logical rebuttal. This is an area where the only hope–and it’s not a guaranteed cure–is via a proper public, lay education of children from an early age.
- US foreign policy consists almost entirely of sanctions and bare-knuckled militarism. Despite not having won a proper war in seven and a half decades (and that one was largely won by the Russians), the Americans still strut their bellicose stuff proudly. They maintain between 800 and 1,000 menacing military bases around the world. Hundreds of foreign bases, besides creating dozens of enemies around the world, also means billions of dollars annually in business just building, stocking and maintaining them. The US military is also the world’s largest polluter.
- A large sector of the population is incapable of reasonable thinking on any question. This is about the lamentable “dumbing down” of America in recent–and not so recent–decades. Whether coincidentally or by design, it functioned wonderfully well to create a semi-literate brotherhood with no criteria of its own that thrives on pure toxic ideology and magical religion. This problem will require intensive, long-term cultivation of the American lumpenproletariat. The first requirement is literacy. The second is books that aren’t the Bible.
- No leadership whatsoever. The election of an honest, capable, hard-working, Franklin-D.-Roosevelt-style president would work wonders. There is no shortage of such people in the United States, but today they’re too honest to get involved in national politics.
It Might Be a Long Uphill Trudge But It’s Possible, and Necessary
We’re talking here, of course, about hearts and minds. In America they urgently require some serious changing. And that’s not an easy task, as the Americans discovered in Vietnam. The essential first step in any case is for a decent, humanitarian American candidate to win an election, and not just one. This kind of change requires a whole series of disinterested commanders in chief dedicated to healing and rebuilding the country. They don’t need to worry about making it “great” which is just a hollow campaign slogan. It would be enough just to make it a just country where every newborn child had an equal chance in life.