Mar 07, 2013 - Issue 507

A Divided People is What Makes
The U.S. a Suffering Country

One doesn’t have to look far to see how difficult it is in a country as big and diverse as the U.S. for the people to join together to act in their own behalf, on behalf of the nation, and for the good of the planet.

Everywhere one looks, there is division. It’s almost a cliché at this time in our history, that this is a divided nation. The U.S. was divided long before Barack Obama became president, but his presidency has not mitigated that much at all. The principle reasons for the continuing division are that, first, we are not in a “post racial” period in history, and second, the Republican Party has sworn that it will do everything in its power to see that Obama accomplishes nothing in his tenure as president. 

In fact, Senator Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, stood in Washington and stated in public at the outset of the first Obama Administration that his party’s primary function for the foreseeable future was to make him a one-term president. He was not interested in the creation of jobs or even advancing the GOP rallying cry of “smaller government!” He just wanted to get rid of Obama. Now, that’s division.

The overriding myth of America is that it is a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” when it really is for the general benefit of the rich and powerful. Mostly, it has been that way since the beginning and it is not likely to change anytime soon. Most nations function that way, with the exception of a few enlightened ones and usually, these are nations that curb excess accumulation of wealth and power, both by law and by use of a decent moral compass.

With a set of founding documents as excellent as those of the U.S. and as rooted in the concept of equality and justice as they are (despite the flaws and warts of the founders), it should be easy for “the people” to assume their rightful place as the captains of the ship of state. The mechanisms are all there, showing the egalitarian underpinnings of the country, in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Those documents and the laws and traditions that have flowed from them for more than two centuries seem to clearly show that the people, through the political process, should be in charge and give direction to the nation in all things.

It just does not work that way, and it’s because the people are divided into innumerable groups and regions and blocks and it is on only rare occasions that they come together to address any of the problems that they face. One thing that should draw the people together is this: We are a working people. When we can, we have jobs. 

Out of a population of 315 million, there are about 155 million wage earners, so one would think that this is the place where people would find some common ground, a place from which to unite to serve the needs of the greatest number.

While it is true that millions of workers have joined together to better their lives, in unions, they represent only about 11 percent of working people. (Just to make it clear, we are talking about people who work for a paycheck and depend on that paycheck, week to week, to support themselves and their families, whether they are paid $20,000 or $100,000 a year.) The rule of thumb here is that, if you cannot survive at your current standard of living for three months without a paycheck, you are basically in the working class, like it or not.

The U.S. government, itself, has pointed out that, since 1975, most of the income increase has gone to the top 20 percent of income and wealth recipients. It should be no wonder for anyone that there is an economic gap of enormous proportions in the country and that should give us all a clue about why there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to creating an egalitarian society, economically, but also socially and politically.

Do we wonder why our sons and daughters face one of the great obstacles of their lives, when they graduate and can’t find jobs to pay off the 20-year (or more) debt they incurred to get that education? When students have protested, have they had the support of the previous generations? Not much, except perhaps for their parents. Others in the older generations look at it as their problem. That’s division on a generational scale. And, vice versa, when Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are threatened with cuts, privatization, or elimination, the old folks are on their own (although there are lots of them), because the younger generation has been convinced by right-wingers in politics and the economy that the programs are going broke and will not be there for them. Even though these threats have been debunked many times, many believe what they hear.

Working men and women, responding to the propaganda they hear and see every day, find it difficult to make common cause with each other about their own standard of living. Non-union workers often say that unionized workers make too much, and the message there is: “If unionized workers made less, we might make more.” This is living in a fantasy world, because workers’ families will only see an improvement in their standard of living by fighting for it, and that means getting involved in the political process. Simply voting is not involvement in the political process; it’s merely a start. Involvement in the political life of a nation means learning the issues, learning about the functioning of government, learning about how the combination of government and powerful corporations have come to rule most aspects of Americans’ lives.

Within the union movement, as in the society at large, there have been divisions and those divisions remain. Outside of uniting for better pay and wages, working people do not agree on all issues. Historically, there has been a tension between jobs and the environment. Many unions believed that any construction job or any program that provided jobs was good. Many unions were concerned about the degradation of the environment. The tension between those union factions remains. About 40 years ago, for a time, there was discussion among the unions about that great divide and how to reduce or eliminate it, but it never happened.

Today, the best example of that union struggle is the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring highly toxic “tar sands” oil from Alberta, Canada, to Texas for refining. At a time when the world is rightly concerned about adding even more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, many scientists have warned that Keystone will add even more. The alarm has been sounded about the tipping point, above which it will be too late to stop climate change and global warming from doing irreparable damage to the planet. Simply, the construction unions generally want the pipeline built and others are strongly opposed, and many union opponents of the pipeline are in the scientific and technical fields that deal directly with climate change and global warming. Because of the division, the AFL-CIO has taken no position on the pipeline.

Reversing climate change and global warming is vital to the continued existence of the planet as we know it, but to hear bosses of the fossil fuel industry, their public relations people, and their politicians, their primary goal and the goal of the nation is and always will be making a profit (“keeping the economy growing”), which means continuing to exploit the resources without regard for the aftermath of destruction. All one has to do is look at the destruction of the boreal forests of Alberta, Canada, where the “tar sands” are being dug and processed to send through the Keystone pipeline. The immediate region of exploitation looks like nothing less than a moonscape and the effect on the land and water is evident. It is already known what happens to the wildlife that stops at one of their toxic ponds for a rest and a drink.

Yet, a significant proportion of Americans are either oblivious to the problems or they believe the climate-change deniers, who say that everything is alright and that we should just proceed with our way of life: suburban development, malls, Interstate highways, and the endless consumption of goods (most of which are disposable) from China and other low-wage countries, all based on fossil fuel burning.

The problems of the U.S. are not easily solved because most people do not know the issues and, even if they were inclined to cooperate with one another, they would have to be taught anew how a democracy works and what the individual citizen has to do to make it work for everybody. That would be okay, but we do not have much time to address some of the most troubling and dangerous issues.

The social problems are immense and will not be solved by 50 different states taking 50 different paths to solutions. We tried that in the fights for civil rights. Most called it freedom and some called it “states’ rights,” and we know how that worked out: The struggle continues for full freedom for all. Divisions exist in our quest for quality education, universal health care, a clean up of the water and air, housing for the poor and working class, and for solutions to problems associated with our food system. The latter problem involves: The increasing poverty rate in America, food insecurity, and the wholesomeness and nutritional value of the food we are handed to eat by those who manufacture and sell that food.

The divisions are with us by the thousands. One of those divisions is the seeming division between two political parties. Although, the stream of history shows that the two parties are pushing the U.S. inexorably in the same direction (no revolutionary change there), the one factor that continues to stop the country from solving its problems is the headlong plunge of the Republicans to destroy the effectiveness of government. They just want to make it small enough to “drown in a bathtub,” as the GOP guru, Grover Norquist, has demanded of them. They seem to be succeeding, since government that is effective in solving the problems of the people seems to have disappeared. In its place is an echo chamber of degenerate dialogue.

If there is one thing that the Occupy movement accomplished, it was that it brought into the public discourse what people have known instinctively for many generations, namely that the biggest division is between the 1 percent and the rest of us, the 99 percent. There is little division among the 1 percent, economically or politically, because they know that, in a democracy, the majority is supposed to rule. Since they are in the vast minority and this country still has a democratic form, they could see their power slip away and with it, their riches. They have been very creative in constructing divisions among the massive majority within that democratic political system. 

Over generations, they have managed to use those divisions to maintain their power and, therefore, their wealth. They pick politicians and ensure that they will remain in office, usually through bribes called political campaign contributions, and the politicians always remember who put them where they are and what they must do to stay there. Those contributors write the laws that their politicians dutifully introduce, support and defend, and eventually pass into law. The people, the vast majority, do not have the same kind of power because they are divided, not into parts, but into fragments. No power emanates from those small fragments.

There is growing misery for more and more people in the U.S., as the economy is harmed by the 1 percent, and society offers no help to the sufferers, although all are supposed to be in this together. Eventually, the people are bound to see that the 99 percent have more in common with each other, than they have with the 1 percent, whose interests are diametrically opposed to the vast majority. When that happens, most of the divisions will become unimportant, the true enemy of the common good will reveal itself, and positive change will flow from that. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.