The state of the American union has been, is now, and always shall be a work in progress. Human frailty—past, present, and to come—insures that elements of our union will always need revision.
At any point in time, we face problems and devise solutions. In time solutions can in turn become new problems.
These principles apply to matters great and small. For example: in order to unite the thirteen independent states under a new national government, the practice of chattel slavery was not only permitted but was also placed beyond any regulation by the federal government. The Congress had no right to meddle in slavery. A nation was created, but embedded within it was a profound division that no political process could heal. In just over 70 years the new nation descended into Civil War.
Other consequences of the Constitution of 1787 are less obvious. It was a plan for a government, and it lacked any obvious social or cultural provisions. It nevertheless provided the foundation on which the society and culture of the United States—what we might refer to as “America” rather than “the United States”—was built. Most critical to the development of America was the failure to respect the fundamental principle of human equality. Women and non-whites were excluded from political power even though neither gender nor race is mentioned in the Constitution.
These two Great Exclusions shaped the lives of individual Americans and their relations with each other. Over the course of the nineteenth century they produced an exclusionary society predicated on white male supremacy. Reunification after the Civil War was possible only on the basis of white male domination. The nation was identified with its white males, and white males were “America.” White males, as white males, were entitled to social, economic, and political power.
Through the first half of the twentieth century the white male regime penetrated all aspects of American life. After World War II, however, white male status collapsed. White male power, however, remained largely intact. White males still ruled, but their rule lacked legitimacy. That loss of legitimacy registered first in the general failure of authority in the 1960s, then in the gradual loss of legitimacy of government itself over the following decades.
The failure in the 1960s was reminiscent of the failure in Philadelphia in 1787. The civil rights movement was only a beginning. To make the new civil rights real, the nation needed to move forward with basic economic change. Two generations later we are facing a crisis of legitimacy as fundamental in its own way as the coming of the Civil War. Human equality, and the dignity that it provides for all, does not demand a leveling of economic condition. But human equality is the philosophical foundation of popular sovereignty. Beyond a certain point, inequality of condition destroys democracy by shifting sovereign power from all of the people to the few with concentrated wealth.
In his campaign speech in Philadelphia Obama spoke of the need to return to a government for all of the people. Until we understand how we got to this point, however, we have almost no chance of succeeding. We have to reconstruct our understanding of human equality, clear our heads of the Western myth as our national narrative, and recognize that the American Dream remains an Impossible Dream. Then we would have a chance.