Perfecting Our Union

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.

9 Responses to Perfecting Our Union

  1. Jim Lein says:

    I couldn’t agree more. A recent book I haven’t read yet (but have read reviews of) cites strong evidence that financial inequality seriously weakens a society: “The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. See reviews in the July 16 Commonweal and the September Progressive magazines.

  2. bob hudspeth says:

    The reality of economic inequality is a much-discussed subject these days, but it is one that we need to address directly. Readers of this blog are surely aware of Tony Judt’s little book, “Ill Fares the Land,” which is a succinct and compelling review of how economic inequality pervades our society. I’ll quote one short passage: “The impact of material differences takes a while to show up: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice towards those on the lower ranks of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked. The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed” (p. 21). Judt bases his argument on the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” (London: Allen Lane, 2009). Their charts are astounding. There appears to be direct correlations between levels of inequality and levels of several forms of social disease.

    I have one other point to offer: we talk ourselves into states of public unease. Words matter, deeply. If we persist in talking about “taking back the country” or about “the REAL America”; if we repeatedly call the administration “illegal” or “illegitimate,” then we convince ourselves that those propositions are, in fact, “true.” One of the underlying themes of this website, as I understand it, is that the stories we tell ourselves shape us. I think that in many ways we are what we say.

  3. I found SPIRIT LEVEL immensely heartening, but I do need to remind all of Mark Twain’s brilliant observation that “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” We like to believe that statistics measure “reality,” but it’s hard to tell. There is a small book entitled THE SPIRIT LEVEL DELUSION: FACT-CHECKING THE LEFT’S NEW THEORY OF EVERYTHING. As the title suggests, Christopher Snowdon, the author, writes from a right-wing position (English, not American). His argument leaves me wanting someone to fact-check his numbers. There are questions, and he is persuasive that the argument Wilkinson and Pickett present may at times be more left-wing than scientific.

  4. You made some good points here. I looked on the net for the matter and found most folks will go along with with your site.

  5. Alanah says:

    lol!! that is an awesome idea!😀

  6. bob hudspeth says:

    Our current levels of ignorance an confusion are truly alarming. We have narratives floating around the Republican party that are insidious. I’ve always been bemused by the fact that as we purportedly grow more “educated” the amount of superstition and dogma rises steadily. Today’s Los Angeles Times has a full analysis of Rick Perry’s record of wrecking Texas’s health-care system (,0,5515472.story). But how many people will read it, and, if they do, will “believe” it or take the fact seriously when he makes his outrageous claims? Ditto the NY Times today which reports on his weird mis-use of Galileo ( He–and many an other–uses language to obfuscate or flat out lie, and we apparently let him get away with it.

    I focus on Perry because I am firmly convinced that he will be the GOP nominee (and I’m personally offended as a native Texan that he “represents” my native state!). His tales are the very fictions that the “founders” went to some lengths to prevent: the close association of church and state, the ability of an individual state to act independently of the Union.

    I don’t mind debating competing ideas but I do cringe at the substitute of mythology and ideology for ideas, because that makes a genuine discussion impossible.

  7. bob hudspeth says:

    I have second thoughts: what I wrote a few hours ago sounds way too partisan, which is not the point in this blog. I have, for instance, serious problems with many of Obama’s decisions and feel quite betrayed (Afghanistan and Guantanamo being two chief ones). I wound up using Perry as my examples because he is so much on my mind.

    The larger point is that we face real problems, for all societies do at all times. What we lack is a clear understanding of them and a consensus about how to address them.

    1. How shall we ensure adequate health care for the population as a whole?
    2. How shall we reform the tax code so that we are not merely rewarding those with influence and money?
    3. What is a humane, decent foreign policy in a world fraught with incredible danger?
    4. How can we learn not to ruin the natural world?

    As I type them these sound like bromides–and they may well be. But I do firmly believe that a society has responsibilities to its members (all its members, not just the nice, tidy ones) and to others in the world. Our Christian missionary zeal morphs into American exceptionalism and leads us to treat the rest of the world as our serfs; our beliefs about progress and comfort lead us to destroy any ecological system that stands in the way of our balance sheets. These are not good ideas and lead to destructive practices. Everywhere we look we see examples of practices that, were we living in a rational world, ought to be brought to an end: the wildly over-compensated investment bankers for example. Or the closure of libraries because we won’t pay a few pennies more in taxes, for another, or the emphasis on football in universities (my own U of Texas being a prime example!) at the expense of undergraduate education. Anyone can make a list pretty quickly, and that’s a good symbol of the problem!

    In my state (California) we could start by raising top portion of the progressive income tax by a percent or two, and we could begin to modify gradually and carefully the property tax–especially on businesses. Finally, we could slightly modify the pension system by asking employees to contribute a small amount more, and on the local level raise the retirement level. The cumulative effects of these would put us far into the black.

    It’s not GOP vs. DEMS; it’s thought vs. superstition; greed vs. compassion and a just regard for the future.

    • Bob,

      I think the root problem is inherent in your comment: liberals tend to deal at the programmatic level–what government should do–while the other guys are attacking the idea of government itself. When they speak vaguely about “small government” they are really arguing that government has no responsibility for the kinds of problems you list as bullet points. The argument for them is not about how to provide health care but simply an assertion that the government shouldn’t do it. Their narrative, in other words, is that any schemes that bernefit the people as a whole is outside the proper purview of government.
      And then they fall back on the Constitution as their historical foundation for a conception of the United States in which individuals should be free to die without benefit of health care if they can’t afford to pay for it.

      They are able to get away with this because their is no developed liberal narrative with historical roots. If liberal thought to gain traction, it has to construct a narrative which makes government American. The Constitution is useless for that purpose; it works for the right for a lot of reasons, including the current membership on the Supreme Court. Liberals need to claim the Declaration of Independence. The revolutionary generation were not anarchists. They believed deeply in the importance of government, and they founded their ideas on respect for the dignity of each individual. Government, in their view, was created to all the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” There we should take our stand. The size of government is not the point; the purpose of government is.

  8. I love to read
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