America: True Democracy, or Beholden to Power Brokers?

American identity is a composite of both the history provided in the archival record, and the stories authored by writers that now make up the corpus of American literature over the past three centuries. However, those in power in America were primarily the ones whose stories concretized the national memory that we now acknowledge to be our unique idea – the one that gives us “Americanness.” Those who have been in power in America for two and a half centuries have sought – and often succeeded – in crafting the legislature to suit their desires.

Power is obtained through two primary ways: the accumulation of wealth (be it through cash or landholding); or by force, which includes or implies the threat of death.

This paper will seek to develop the relationship by which wealthy – and most often landed – elites have leveraged this to empower themselves in ways that allow them to subjugate certain classes, to control the flow of information in various media, and explore how this has remained the status quo throughout much of United States’ history. Moreover, we will explore contemporary America and how these “upper casters” as I will term them, continue doing so to this day. Lastly, we will analyze how this affects and shapes American identity both within – and how our national character is viewed from without.

Truly, the wealthiest people in a society with different class systems truly can never be democratized, if by a democracy we mean “a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges.” Yet, how is it that over the long course of American history these power elites have been able to wield so much influence over so many people? Those who are in power succeed in gaining what they want because they have the power to change the laws that codify how society is to act. The poor are rarely able to set the laws in their favor. The institution of early American debtor prisons was around for centuries, breaking apart families and leaving people locked up who certainly could not afford bailment or a lawyer. It took great reformers who helped persuade those in power that poorness was a condition, not a crime. Certainly today we know that it is not a crime to be poor – but the landholding forefathers in our country would not have agreed with you.

One question that must be asked is what truly is American identity today? And is it really much different today than it was 50, 100 or even 350 years ago following first contact? The identity is absolutely different; but the power structures of the upper-casters has changed very little. Certainly, dozens of wars have occurred, and these undoubtedly shape feelings of patriotism and American identity. Wars stir up patriotism, which is a major enabler of a cohesive national identity. Twain wrote of the residents of St. Louis thusly: “Their patriotism was strong, their pride in the flag was of the old-fashioned pattern, their love of country amounted to idolatry.” Wars always have been a great way to incite patriotic fervor, rouse the country around a particular symbol (frequently the American flag, as in the case of post-9/11 flag lapel pins, which are still en vogue seven years later).

Another way to help discern contemporary American identity objectively is to view it through the lens of an outsider. This was what de Toqueville did as the French author made his way to America, traveling across many cities exploring the young country and learning what he could about democracy in this country. Looking at the present, how do foreigners view American identity today, in this world of global communications, mass media and instant messaging?

In many regards, Europeans today chide our citizens as slothful, obese and lazy. In many European countries, where CEO’s of global corporations ride mass transit alongside their employees, business interests think of American CEO’s as contemporary “robber barons,” with $100 million golden parachutes and annual salaries often approaching more than 1,000 times that of their lowest-paid employees. Additionally, another defining characteristic of American is the encroachment of highly-organized, very conservative Christian religion upon the normally secular governmental systems. Contrast this to early America, however, and similarities already begin to appear. Puritan New England, where many pilgrims and other migrants settled to escape religious persecution back in Europe, was a hotbed of such extreme or otherwise right-wing religion. Europeans today are similarly alarmed by the rampant religiosity in America and how it is permeated not only our legislation and politics but our social systems as well. So what of these views of America, then? The inherent American identity is internally structured by our wealthy business and political leaders, and they still seek to portray our country as the only political heavyweight on the world stage; as the policeman of the world; and as the arbiters of the Global War on Terrorism.

As the landholding elite in America today – as well as big business and their associated lobbyists – increase in numbers, dollars and thus influence, the face of our nation has steadily evolved over the past several centuries. The elemental roots of this took hold as early as the seventeenth century, when titles to huge tracts of often hundreds of thousands of acres of land were granted by English Lourdes to their wealthy family members and other well-connected persons of the social elite. The headright system perpetuated this, and literature from the colonial period through the antebellum period reflects this. Hawthorne’s character Colonel Pyncheon is a paradigm of this behavior at its worst: co-opting Mr. Maule’s land through subversive tactics and questionable legislation by influencing town ordinances, Maule ended up “executed for the crime of witchcraft.”

The ability of one singular individual to wield so much power, and craft public policy so as to forcibly remove someone from their rightful land is truly astonishing – and yet it has happened probably tens of thousands of times, if not more, in our nation’s history. The ability of the aristocratic and “elite” to shape the history, present and past through information control empowered them to influence and shape the feelings, opinions and beliefs of those around them in their early settlements. In this fishing village it was no different. Pyncheon’s ability to set the agenda allowed him as one of the few “landed gentry” to obtain by false pretenses the land which he coveted.

Today’s landholding elite and corporate powerbrokers also seek to fashion legislation that will benefit the very few while enriching themselves. The current White House administration has repeatedly sought to abolish any sort of taxation on inheritance. Their carefully crafted strategy of preserving their wealth utilized the double sword: they use fear to keep money and hence power. Labeling it the “death tax,” politicians and lobbyists refer to how the death tax will usher in the demise of the family farm – even though no incidents of such can ever be cited. Nevertheless, the fear of this cultural institution being destroyed has pushed this plutocratic agenda further than anyone could ever imagine. Conservative legislators Truly prefer that as much wealth as possible be passed along, with the obvious intention and goal of preserving that wealth to maintain a majority for as long a period of time as possible. This was akin to the ‘great estates’ of the landed aristocracy that Toqueville was familiar with in the England and France of his era.

In de Toqueville’s work he also makes a point of focusing on the discernible differences between those who resided in New England versus those in the South. The landed gentry in the South, who frequently originated from the regions in England where the cavalier society was prevalent, continued to perpetuate their class-based, oligarchical beliefs in the new nation. If oligarchy is not the correct phraseology, then “nobleman” is certainly not correct, for many of these men – though wealthy representatives of the merchant class, for instance – were of money but not nobility. Toqueville furthers the distinction when he writes “their influence was not altogether aristocratic… since they possessed no privileges, and slave labor denied them tenant farmers and thus they had no patronage.”

During the antebellum period in the United States, we can note the earliest divergence in American identity taking place: the contraposition between North and South. While these two culturally distinctive regions within the United States were becoming more and more different in the antebellum period, there was also another parallel development occurring at this time in the South: the noticeable lack of development of a distinctive middle class in the southern states. As a blue collar society was elevating individuals in the North, yearnings for equality were growing amongst people of all stripes. In Mills’ On the Subjection of Women, his arguments for women’s rights were premised on the belief that women could do things they were forbidden to – if only they were allowed to try and give demonstrable evidence thereto. The albeit tiny middle class that was developing in the South did not espouse these beliefs of equality, and hence remained on a path divergent from their Northern counterparts. Conversely, it was the established belief of the “southern middle class… that industrial slavery would be the best way to modernize.” This put them at odds with both the Northern middle class, as well as the agrarian interests in the South, who still feared anything urban or industrial. The further and deeper South one went, the stronger this sentiment.

How do we reconcile this with national identity? John Gillis wrote, “The mere notion of identity comes from a national memory… shared by people who have never seen or heard of one another, yet who regard themselves as having a common history.” Some figures in American history immediately come to mind: Christopher Columbus, General George Patton, and Pocahontas/John Smith. All of these figures represent histories that have been intentionally miswritten order to perpetuate particular American myths. What is the point of such myths? Unquestionably to foster national cohesiveness, concretize common bonds and propagate the “American Story.” It is stories such as these that have framed our national identity through their telling and retelling, whether fictional or not.

The writers of history are the ones who create the memory – whether true or not. If historians are truly conservative in their analysis of history – and its presentation as fact – then they must thus sift through mountainous piles of primary source documents: journals, archives, letters, diaries, newspapers from the time and even books written at the time. While this may be a monumental task, it is up to historians to continually strive to separate the “stories” from the history. If history is written by the winners, than those with the most land, money and power will be apt to shape history in the way they want to be portrayed. This is an inherently dangerous way for our society to thrive, and yet it happens regularly.

How can anyone truly say that in these contemporary times, America is anything but a democracy; rather, we live in a plutocracy that espouses some democratic ideals — a nation of corporate business interests and landholding elites. They are the ones who wield the power in America today, and the Millsian sentiment that he does not like anybody that doesn’t look like him — probably applies to most plutocrats today.