It’s July 4th, the day we celebrate the founding of our nation and the values proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that was signed (more or less) on this day.
But does today’s America reflect the belief that all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?
By overwhelming majorities, Americans want:
- cheaper and more universal healthcare and drugs,
- quality public schools and higher education available to all,
- the right to unionize,
- protections from discrimination,
- freedom from fear of death by firearms,
- a clean environment and immediate action to mitigate the climate emergency,
- affordable housing,
- an end to corporate monopolies that lock small business out of the marketplace while generating obscene profits,
- a humane end to our twin crises of homelessness and untreated mental illness,
- medical-based (rather than prison-based) programs to help people suffering from addiction,
- morbidly rich individuals and giant corporations to pay their fair share of taxes,
- strengthened Social Security and real Medicare,
- the right to vote without challenge or interference,
- and punishment for leaders who lie us into wars, commit torture, and try to overthrow our republic by deceit and violence.
If we were truly a democratic republic, the imagined goal of the Declaration and Constitution, we would have already joined every other developed democracy in the world in having these things.
Instead, we are the world’s outlier.
How is this possible in a nation that has, for over two centuries, proclaimed itself a republic where—within the bounds of the protected rights of minorities—the will of the majority is enacted into law?
With a Republican-controlled House, and a filibuster enforced by Republicans in the Senate (who represent 41 million fewer Americans than their Democratic peers), and six Republican toadies to billionaires on the Supreme Court, can we honestly say “that to secure these rights (of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’)” our state and federal governments are “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”?
Today we celebrate the legal and formal declaration of a war—the second-bloodiest in American history—that we fought to separate ourselves from the brutal warlord King of England and the morbidly rich oligarchs who served him.
The men who signed that Declaration knew they were each signing their own death warrant, and many died and most lost their homes or families in the war, so we could eventually fulfill that vision of our nation’s Founders.
We’ve never fully acted out the ideals the Founders and Framers borrowed from the Huron and Iroquois —as I lay out in The Hidden History of American Democracy (which, shameless plug, comes out in 2 weeks)—but throughout our history we have been moving forward in fits and starts for over two centuries.
At least we were moving forward until the Reagan Revolution, when a small group of billionaires and industrialists put together a plan, authored by Lewis Powell (who Richard Nixon put on the Supreme Court in 1972), that the Court and Republicans in Congress have been following like a blueprint ever since.
At first, they thought that outline would merely protect their wealth from excessive appropriation by the “socialist-leaning” masses. Instead, perhaps without realizing where their efforts must lead, they embedded a cancer into the heart of our democracy that has now metastasized into morbidly rich billionaires wining and dining Supreme Court justices while Republican (and a few Democratic) politicians are wholly-owned appendages of corporate and billionaire wealth.
And the consequences have been devastating, a naked repudiation of the ideals of July 4, 1776.
In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—as unions flourished and Eisenhower and Kennedy built freeways, airports, and tens of thousands of gleaming new schools and hospitals across the land—Americans had a lot of trust in our government. Around 80 percent of Americans told pollsters they trusted our government, a number similar to that of the citizens of virtually all the western European countries.
Today, the Pew Research Center says, only 17 percent of Americans say they trust our government.
How did this happen?
For the very rich and big corporations back in the 1970s, this trust in a government that was then maintaining high tax rates and—through the newly-created EPA, Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act—holding corporations accountable for their pollution and poisonous products was, they believed, an existential threat.
Thus, in response to the growing environmental and consumer movements kicked off by Rachel Carson’s 1961 book Silent Spring and Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, giant corporations and the morbidly rich people they created set out to destroy Americans’ faith in our tax-and-regulate form of government.
As Lewis Powell wrote in his infamous 1971 Memo arguing that businesses and very wealthy individuals needed to mobilize to stop this “assault” on American business:
“Perhaps the single most effective antagonist of American business is Ralph Nader who—thanks largely to the media—has become a legend in his own time and an idol of millions of Americans.”
Powell then quoted a May 1971 article profiling Nader (who wrote the foreword to my 2021 book on American monopolies) in Fortune magazine:
“The passion that rules in him—and he is a passionate man—is aimed at smashing utterly the target of his hatred, which is corporate power. He thinks, and says quite bluntly, that a great many corporate executives belong in prison—for defrauding the consumer with shoddy merchandise, poisoning the food supply with chemical additives, and willfully manufacturing unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer. He emphasizes that be is not talking just about ‘fly-by-night hucksters’ but the top management of blue-chip business.”
This was no less, Powell declared in his next paragraph, than:
“A frontal assault … on our government, our system of justice, and the free enterprise system…”
His solution, as history shows, was for big corporations and the morbidly rich to create a network of think tanks to alter public opinion, to build a filtering organization to help stack the courts, to create rightwing media empires—particularly in the realms of television, social media, and talk radio—to replace trust with cynicism about government, and to place “business-friendly” teachers and professors in schools and colleges.
After Nixon put Powell on the Supreme Court and they then legalized political bribery in a decision Powell himself authored (Bellotti), billionaires and corporations began sponsoring politicians willing to put deregulation and tax cuts at the top of their agenda in exchange for large campaign contributions and other forms of support like cushy jobs after leaving office.
The key to the entire project was destroying citizens’ faith in the government we fought to create in 1776, because Powell and the tobacco and fossil fuel oligarchs who owned him believed government was taking too much of their taxes (at that time the top income tax bracket was 74% and corporate income taxes could max out at nearly 50%), and regulations to protect consumers, workers, and the environment were cutting into profits.
If they could get the people to reject government and instead embrace corporations “sponsoring” public goods like stadiums, hospitals, and civic centers, privatize Medicare (thought George W. Bush’s Medicare “Advantage” scam), privatize public education through vouchers and charter schools, and have public parks, stadiums, museums, and other institutions turn to billionaires for charity instead of depending on tax dollars, then they could eventually get their taxes lowered and their regulations loosened.
The Powell Memo brought into being a plethora of rightwing think tanks, radio and “news” networks, and advocacy organizations that today litter the top hits on any google search of government-mediated topics from free trade to tax policy to “right to work for less” assaults on organized labor.
Their efforts show up regularly in news stories, college textbooks and courses, and thousands of opinion pieces published across the internet, in major national publications, and on social media every day. Rightwing talk radio—with some individual hosts getting over a million dollars a year in subsidies—has provided a steady drumbeat of “government can’t do anything right” for almost forty years.
The result of this corrosive social and political poison has been that Powell and his billionaire acolytes were successful in turning average Americans against their government and its leaders. So successful that, as a recent poll showed, “62% of Republicans say Putin is a ‘stronger leader’ than Biden.”
Powell’s work also set the stage for the 1981 Reagan presidency, which lowered income taxes so much that today’s average billionaire pays around 3.4 percent, radically cut the corporate tax rate while de-funding the IRS, and slashed regulations, particularly on the fossil fuel and chemical industries.
Reagan famously said, in 1986, that “The nine most frightening words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
In other words, don’t trust the government we proclaimed, fought, and many of our ancestors died to create on this day in 1776: instead, appeal to your friendly local corporation or billionaire for help.
Reagan also kicked off the modern neoliberal era by negotiating the GATT (leading to the WTO) and his VP, George HW Bush, negotiated the NAFTA agreement that began the process of moving over 60,000 mostly unionized factories and over 15-20 million good-paying union jobs out of the US and into low-wage countries.
While destroying faith in government has worked out well for transnational corporations and the morbidly rich, its main side-effect has been to empower demagogues and enemies of democracy like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, and the prime-time lineup at Fox “News.” Half of Republican voters now say they’re ready to reject democracy altogether.
Lindsay Graham being booed this week in his own home state because he’s not sufficiently “loyal” to a would-be “King Trump” raises an urgent question on this 4th of July:
“Are the Redcoats now back in control, at least of the GOP?”
The Republican party has passed hundreds of new laws, all with the approval of five or six (depending on the year) corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court, designed to make it more difficult for American citizens to participate in the process of selecting their representatives, the core function of a democratic republic.
They’ve also proposed or passed numerous laws so severely criminalizing voter registration drives that the League of Women Voters has abandoned their efforts in multiple Red States.
Republicans have criminalized protest and dissent, primary American values written into the First Amendment, and even—outrageously—given a “get out of jail free” card to people who kill protesters. As just one example, a headline at Truthout bluntly states:
“DeSantis Signs Bill Ending Vehicle Driver Liability For Hitting Protesters.”
In Idaho, a local Republican Party followed other Red states in running a fundraiser called “Trigger Time with Kyle” where enthusiastic GOP shooters could fire assault weapons at human-like targets alongside the man who was acquitted—after bizarre jury instructions by a rightwing judge—of murdering two unarmed and nonviolent people protesting George Floyd’s murder.
Today’s Republican Party no longer believes in democracy or the core ideals on which this nation was founded: they reject “equality before the law” of all human beings, and the concept that our government derives its power and legitimacy from “the consent of the governed.”
Instead, like the Loyalists and Tories during the Revolutionary era, they’ve sworn their allegiance and fealty to the rich and powerful, to would-be monarchs and dictators like Trump and DeSantis, to armed militias and bullies seeking to whitewash American history, intimidate voters, and control our schools and public institutions.
If it seems like America is re-fighting the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, it’s because there’s a sizeable group of right-wing Americans who will proudly tell you (and have even proclaimed to judges in January 6th trials) that’s exactly what they believe they’re doing.
In both those two past wars, one group of Americans believed in the ideal of a pluralistic democracy and a republic deriving its authority from the will and consent of its people.
On the other side were people who believed that democracy was a dangerous experiment and a grave mistake; that the rich and powerful should rule and only white male landowners should vote or hold political office.
This is what the Republican party now represents: Oligarchy.
- Rule by the rich, ignoring “the consent of the governed.”
- The suppression of dissent, the oppression of minorities, and replacing the ballot box with the iron fist of a police state run of, by, and for the wealthy few.
And they’re pushing us there hard and fast:
- A political network run by a group of right-wing billionaires has a larger budget and more employees than the entire Republican Party.
- A family of billionaire oligarchs from Australia crank democracy-hating propaganda into the American political bloodstream nearly every day on cable television and in print.
- Voices openly denigrating democracy and promoting hate and intolerance—the hallmarks of fascism—are on local radio and television in every American city, every single day, and similarly dominate the secret algorithms of Social Media.
- The single largest source of threats of violence and murders by terrorists in America today are committed by white-supremacists aligned with the GOP who hate and fear the idea of a pluralistic, democratic society.
Tragically, for the third time in our nation’s history, patriots who believe in the ideals of July 4, 1776 have to defend America against those who don’t.
Several of these hard-right groups have openly declared their intention to start a second American Civil War. Tim McVeigh is their hero. They celebrate the anniversaries of Waco and McVeigh’s bombing. They honor Hitler’s birthday. They have their “fourteen words” which show up in one after another mass shooter’s manifestos.
They say they want to see Americans killing each other in the name of white supremacy and rule by the rich, and have slaughtered Hispanics (El Paso), Jews (Tree of Life), and Blacks (Mother Emmanuel). They terrorize Asian American, queer, and Native American communities for sport.
They declare their loyalty to a white-supremacist real estate oligarch from New York, get their news from Australian and Russian oligarchs, and have embraced an ideology championed by Germans in the 1930s. At a recent DeSantis rally they were openly waving swastika flags and, when asked to denounce them, DeSantis instead claimed the reporter asking the question was trying to “smear me as if I had something to do with it.”
The Biden presidency and the upcoming 2024 election represent America’s third, and perhaps final, chance to prove democracy is not merely an idealistic fantasy.
If his administration and Democrats in Congress can succeed in putting the American economy back on track, renew the idea that “all people are created equal,” and rebuild the civil society that 40 years of Reaganism has so devastated, American democracy—and, indeed, democracy around the world—may well endure and even grow.
But Republicans, loyal to the handful of billionaires who fund them, are doing everything they can to block his efforts, and to thus reverse the outcome of our Revolutionary War: from stripping us of our rights before the Supreme Court, to sabotaging our election systems, to amplifying their rhetoric of hate and terror across multiple media platforms.
When “moderate” voices within their ranks, like Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney, dare pop their heads up, the majority of the Republican Party viciously attacks them.
Dissent—like in the colonies before 1776—is no longer allowed in the GOP. Authoritarianism like that of King George III now prevails. Oligarchy has completely seized the Party.
These are, as Thomas Paine (a fervent believer in democracy) said, “the times that try men’s souls.”
Seven months before the Declaration of Independence was signed, General George Washington had lost New York to the British, was encamped at McKonkey’s Ferry on the Delaware River opposite Trenton, New Jersey, and 11,000 men had just deserted his army and fled back to their homes. A brutal winter was upon him and the brave men who stayed with him.
In response, Thomas Paine, knowing the consequences of losing the war, wrote a pamphlet titled The American Crisis that Washington ordered read to all American troops across every field of battle. It said, in part:
“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered…”
We must not let the right-wing politicians and terrorists prevail: those who give a fist-salute to Trump’s January 6th traitors; who have openly proclaimed their goal of Americans killing Americans in an ideological and racial war; who daily work to destroy our public schools, freedom from religious domination, and our right to vote.
This July 4th let us all remember, as Paine wrote in words that inspired a new nation and ultimately changed the course of history:
“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Republished with permission from Thom Hartmann.
Thom Hartmann, one of America’s leading public intellectuals and the country’s #1 progressive talk show host, writes fresh content six days a week. The Monday-Friday “Daily Take” articles are free to all, while paid subscribers receive a Saturday summary of the week’s news and, on Sunday, a chapter excerpt from one of his books.