Columnist: Is the U.S. entering a third revolution?
One night recently, I woke up in the early hours of the morning with the realization that our country seems to be susceptible to a revolution every 120 years.
The first was our rebellion against British domination that became the 7½-year, full-fledged Revolutionary War (1775-1781). The main issue that precipitated that war was a series of tax measures levied against the American colonists by the British Parliament. The colonists’ battle cry was “taxation without representation.”
Another issue was freedom of religion — resentment over imposition of the Anglican Church on the colonists, with the cost to be borne by them. Other concerns of the colonists were for trial by jury instead of by a court of the crown, stopping the search and seizure of individuals and their homes and papers, and an end to the quartering of British troops in colonists’ homes.
The First, Third, Fourth and Seventh Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in the Bill of Rights attest to the importance of these issues.
One hundred twenty years later (in the 1890s), a revolutionary fervor over oppression of the working people by the power of the wealthy was rising to the boiling point. It was the so-called “Golden Age,” the era of the “Robber Barons.”
These powerful wealthy industrialists and financiers who amassed huge fortunes by monopolizing the railroads, the steel and oil industries, and controlling the banks, used corruption and unfair business practices to eliminate competition, then set prices as high as they chose and used their wealth and power to control Congress. They also took advantage of the large numbers of immigrant laborers entering the country, imposing low wages and long hours and horrible working conditions with little if any regard for occupational health or safety.
In response, labor unions were formed, but if they went on strike, they were met by armed goon squads or the National Guard called in by the mine and mill owners. It was a time when big corporations and banks wielded enormous power over Congress, there was a huge and growing income gap between the top 1 percent and the other 99 percent, and dissention over U.S. military intervention in the world, growing mechanization replacing workers, protection of the environment and controlling immigration. Does this all sound familiar?
Fortunately, in 1901 Theodore Roosevelt, who became president when William McKinley was assassinated, headed off a potential revolution by breaking up the trusts, and promoting legislation improving working conditions, reducing the work week from as high as 72 hours to 48 hours or less, outlawing child labor, regulating banks, and creating pure food and drug regulations.
Another 120 years later, we are now in the 2010s and are witnessing a rising tide of populism in response to a resurgence of the abuses of the Golden Age — overbearing greed and political power of giant corporations and banks, the enormous and growing income gap between the top 1 percent and the rest of us, and dissention over growing automation and sending jobs overseas, military intervention, environmental protection and immigration control. Deja vu.
All of these issues are playing a major role in this year’s national election. Harder and harder lines are being drawn on all of them, which has a very real potential of threatening the future of our form of government.
The late Yale political scientist Juan Linz warned that our presidential republic is “prone to paralysis and collapse.” When the president and legislature are elected separately (unlike under the parliamentary system used by other democratic countries) they may become controlled separately by parties with major differences. Then instead of reaching a middle ground of civil compromise, the president and legislature may come to loggerheads, any hope of compromise vanishes and the government becomes nonfunctional.
Thomas Jefferson, our third president (1801-1809) favored an agrarian society over an industrial one because he was distrustful of corporations, which he feared would result in a pyramiding of wealth and power in the hands of a few that would be used for their benefit at the expense of the vast majority of the people.
Jefferson predicted the likelihood, even the necessity, of periodic revolutions. In his words, “I hold it that rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical” and “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
I certainly hope it does not come to that.
Hal Sundin’s As I See It column appears on the first Thursday of each month.
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