Some political commentators have suggested that the United States is at present more polarized politically than before the Civil War. Such a comparison seems accurate enough given the rhetoric of the Tea Party and the obstructionism of the Republicans in Congress. In his First Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln lamented, “Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their peace, and personal security, are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension.”
While a similar sentiment is captured in the anti-Obama bumper sticker, “I will keep my guns, money, and freedom; you can keep the change,” the main obstacle to everyone’s property, peace, and personal security is the corporate corruption of our political system.
Yet, as Lincoln argued in 1861, an apprehension seems to exist among the Southern States, specifically fundamentalist Christians, that Obama’s accession represents a threat to their worldview, one that has already lost the battle over beliefs on same-sex marriage and how gays and lesbians should be treated within society. A vocal minority within the country is obsessed with the idea that the nation is in decline due to a lack of religious uniformity, and increasingly desires to “save” the nation by imposing its absolute truth of Christian morality.
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Likewise, another vocal minority of radical libertarians — those who categorically equate government involvement in any aspect of society or the economy with a corresponding loss of personal freedom, and who consequently seek to undermine the welfare state, even those programs that work well for people individually and society as a whole — is obsessed with the idea that the nation is in decline due to its debt, and desires to “save” the nation by imposing its absolute truth of supply-side economics and austerity.
Both groups, fundamentalist Christians and radical libertarians, embrace ideas, policies, and tactics that are at odds with the founding ideals of the United States. Thus, one might argue that they pose a threat to the nation’s political stability, but while both groups make governing a modern, industrial, and pluralistic society more difficult, the United States of 2013 is quite different from the United States of 1861. In summarizing the political divisions that led to the Civil War, Lincoln stated, “One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended.”
While similar divisions exist today — people either believing that homosexuality is a choice or not, people either believing that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels or not — such divisions between the people do not pose as serious of a threat to political stability because the people have increasingly ceased to matter due to the corporate corruption of the political process itself. In other words, the people assume that they are competing with each other for power, when in actuality the government is controlled by corporate interests.
Lincoln reminded his audience that, “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it.” Yet, as we have recently experienced with Monsanto, corporations are now writing legislation that places them above the U.S. Constitution, and therefore, beyond the influence of the will of the majority.
The Supreme Court itself has facilitated the corporate corruption of democracy, and a constitutional amendment has been proposed by Move to Amend to overturn Citizens United, but how will the people convince the same politicians who regularly side with corporate interests at the expense of the general good of society to pass an amendment that would weaken the power of their own campaign contributors? How can we hope to find virtue in those who have none?
The most significant division within society today is not between people who favor gun regulation or not, or those who support the Affordable Care Act or not, but between those who facilitate the growing corporatocracy and those who recognize that corporate power is slowly undermining the popular sovereignty of the people.
In 1858, Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech to the Republican State Convention in Illinois, which he began by stating: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.” In the context of global warming, it is clear where we are and whither we are tending, but the answer as to how to proceed is less than obvious from a political standpoint. Those who understandably claim that global warming is the most pressing issue facing humanity must seek to deal first with the corporate, media and political forces that are preventing solutions from being implemented.
Groups such as the Tar Sands Blockade are directly confronting the corporate forces, and independent media such as 350.org provide the information necessary for people to understand the reality of the current crisis. But the political process itself remains beholden to the fossil fuel industry and other powerful financial groups. Occupiers, liberals and progressives should publicly support Move to Amend in order to confront the political forces, which are essentially corporate forces, preventing meaningful reform.
When Lincoln referenced Christ in saying that “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he was assuming that the people controlled the house. The question facing us is whether we will continue to control our own house or become powerless tenants living under the roof of a corporate landlord. Right now, the will of the majority still influences the political process on certain issues. For example, the people will largely determine the fate of how gays and lesbians will be treated in society. So far, it seems less likely that the people will determine the fate of how society will respond to global warming. Within the legislative process, the people only have a voice on issues that do not question or interfere with corporate interests.
While our house is indeed divided, the real problem facing us is the question of ownership itself. The house cannot have two owners, but our government currently looks as though it is half corporate-controlled, and half people-controlled. Those solely focused on the revival of traditional religion and the dismantling of the welfare state unknowingly facilitate the corporate corruption of democracy. Lincoln stated, “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
We need to confront the corporate corruption of democracy in order to ensure that our American family still has a house to fight in. We will either become a corporate state, or we will reclaim our democracy. The corporate corruption of democracy requires that we embrace Lincoln’s famous plea that “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” If we want to preserve our popular sovereignty, if we want the divisions between the people to matter, then we need a political system controlled by the people. Both conservatives and liberals, the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, need to rally around the American family to keep the corporate landlords at bay.