We think of ourselves as a revolutionary country because we began with a revolution. But oddly enough, it began as a demand for the redress of grievances. We didn’t want to get out of it the existing order, but to be included in it. The colonials didn’t mind being taxed, they minded not getting a say in the matter, being treated as second class citizens.
In fact, most of the leaders of the rebellion were wealthy or middle class, often self-made men who resented being ordered about by their European inferiors. And when it came to blows, the leaders had more in common with the educated elites of the enemy than with the rabble who made up the colonial military they commanded.
So here we are in a presidential campaign where wealthy, educated elites are calling for a revolution or counter-revolution, and they are evoking angry or delighted responses from the rabble – student debtors, veterans maltreated by an ungrateful nation, a hard-pressed and shrinking middle class left behind by change.
Trump is selling the scrapping of democratic business as usual in exchange for autocratic command, and is promoting class, race and gender warfare. Sanders is selling soak-the-rich, Scandinavian socialism. Cruz is selling the old-time religion and anti-government libertarianism. Mainstream Republicans and Hillary are selling a continuation of a standoff between soak-the-poor, trickle-down economics and well-meaning but ineffectual rational progressivism, neither of which please those hungry for a sharp break with the status quo.
Will any of this lead to a less divided, more prosperous, less poisonous, equable, equitable society? Not bloody likely.
In an even more fraught, polarized period, the 1930s, extremism and demagoguery were rife. Auden called it “a low, dishonest decade.” And, he articulated a darker despair than our own, but one not unlike the mood of the disaffected at Trump and Sanders and Cruz rallies.
“Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.”
The banks are too big to fail and the rich are too rich to jail, but the bulk of us are not big enough to avoid sinking, instead of rising. We are naked and afraid in a world we never made, and our divisive politics seems anxious to pander to our fears, but uninterested in solving our problems. Candidates promise to make sure there’s no place for blacks, Hispanics, LGBT people, women, bankers, liberals, conservatives, the young, the old, the other.
The libertarianism that has captured the Republican Party is based on an economic Calvinism that celebrates the elect — ruthless, self-serving, greedy and uncaring, and damns the rest. You succeed because you are superior. You fail because you deserve to. That way lie the ovens.
Warren Buffett, who looks like a winner by this metric, is old-fashioned enough to object to this crypto-fascist notion. He says he is a member of the lucky sperm club. He was born into the ruling white, upper-middle class, in a safe and prosperous country where he could become well-educated and exercise his abilities.
And since he had a particular kink in his head that made him good at understanding the mechanism of markets at a time when they were the way the world was organized, he succeeded. If he’d been born in Sparta or Japan of the Shoguns or among the Vikings or Mongols, he would have sunk like a stone. And such cultures would have eaten Bill Gates as an hors d’oeuvres.
Buffett and the Koch brothers, despite their wildly divergent political philosophies, had a chance to accrue wealth because we have always been and aimed at being a bourgeoisie, middle class culture that allowed more and more people a chance to make something of themselves.
Yet a lot of our politics seems now to be aimed at erecting more and more barriers to a decent, useful, middling life for as many people as possible. Instead of erecting more barriers, we ought to be flattening them. Instead of dividing the country into gated communities and mean streets, mansions and holes, we ought to be seeking a village commons.
Instead of pitting factions and classes and creeds and races and ideologies against one another’s, we ought to be seeking to bring more of us together in a middle way, a place of compromise, a little more give and take, a little E Pluribus Unum.
In Buddhism the middle way is a path to enlightenment between punishing austerity and lunatic license. The Constitution was a compromise document devised to find a middle way for diverse peoples to agree to govern themselves.
That doesn’t appear to be the spirit of this election, and it ought to worry us. Plenty of other civilizations have risen to glorious heights only to have perverse and uncompromisingly dogmatic humans squander all their gains and bring the whole edifice crashing down. It can happen here.