Our democracy is broken. The government framed by the Constitution isn’t working. It never has come to the full flowering envisioned in the Preamble — the promise of Justice, liberty and opportunity for all, under a government that promotes the general welfare. Today, however, it is sputtering toward paralysis. And aching, I believe, for women to take charge — gifted as they are for making things flower, for finding and cultivating common ground, the ultimate bloom being the general welfare that keeps us free.
The promise of defense “against all enemies, foreign and domestic” has been met. But the rank of the nation as the only superpower comes at a heavy and heavier price that shortchanges justice and the general welfare as well as liberty and opportunity for all, while weakening the protection of individuals by the Bill of Rights. And, who has been most shortchanged throughout? Women.
The failure of American democracy has many roots. Some are more poisonous than others. The one that looms deadliest today, and could well prove terminal, lies in the handiwork of the Constitution itself, in the branch of government that’s never fully and directly accountable to WethePeople. The judiciary, of course.
The judiciary’s own failing traces surely, with ever-mounting clarity, to its ownership by the legal profession. The Founding Fathers were largely lawyers by profession and, sadly, all men. So it’s hardly surprising that they would triangulate the government, backing the executive and legislature with a third branch intended to safeguard the underlying principle of the document, the rule of law.
They can’t be blamed for a personal bias that kept them from seeing that over time their creation would deliver less rule of law than rule by the profession of law. But that essentially is the way the system of justice has worked from the beginning. Almost without exception, the decisions flowing from the courts at every level reward lawyers handsomely on every side. When plaintiffs win, their lawyers ordinarily claim one-third of the settlement, and more if their billable hours run higher. The losers still must compensate their lawyers at pre-agreed rates, enforced by the court. Reasonable judges (aren’t they all) don’t like to see fellow lawyers go hungry. (There, but for the grace of God, go I.)
Ownership of the law has come by hands in the profession because they’ve always been positioned to make it happen. From its roots in European and English practice, it has come down as a work in four phases: enactment, practice, interpretation, precedent. Lawyers dominate all four phases. If a legislator proposes a new act, in either Congress or a legislature, the first step is to get it written in the traditional manner by imbedded lawyers, who are general staff to the assembly or lawyers staffing the committee to which the bill is likely to be referred. Thereafter, its life will be dogged by lawyers at every step, from committee approval, through debate and enactment, on into practice and interpretation, until it may reach the ultimate test, a verdict from the Supreme Court. Whatever its life, it never leaves the hands of the lawyers. The profession over time has worked ordinary language into a legalese that the system renders unique to itself and made readable correctly only by members. A conspiracy and history written by men. Grammarians be damned!
When the Founding Fathers concluded the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia they knew that the exhausting work of forming the new government had not done enough for the male persons. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people had to be about the individual, not the whole alone. Madison and Mason were demanding more.
As the States ratified the Constitution, widespread dissatisfaction was also calling for a Bill of Rights. When the new Congress adopted the dozen proposed by Madison and sent them to the States, ten were ratified. The life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the Declaration of Independence were hence assured for the people, every man with equal claim. Women never once mentioned.
That claim has flowered many ways through two centuries. But it has been withered or voided at other times. The Civil War opened the door to equality for slaves, but the suffering of their descendants has not entirely ended. The very few who are fastest and burliest find their justice, and more, on football fields and basketball courts, where high-risk success and popularity have so numbed American families and schools that the nation’s once-unrivaled economic leadership is now under heavy siege from global competition. How many parents have given deep thought to the life, liberty and happiness of their children when they see them sucked, uninsured and uncompensated, into the football machine that has become the nation’s foremost entertainment industry?
During World War II, Japanese Americans were gathered by marshal law into concentration camps at remote locations. When they were released at the war’s end, very few could entirely recover the life, liberty and happiness they enjoyed before the war. Democracy deflowered by paranoid racism.
Soon after WWI, women finally won the right to vote. But neither that nor the constitutional guarantee of equal protection has yet brought them full equality. It is yet to flower fully in the workplace, where their pay averages only four-fifths of the pay of men for the same job. They are yet to hold full authority for the care of their own bodies. Happily, though, they have the levers of full equality in higher education, the professions, and the ballot box. And, they have begun to use them with a vengeance, claiming three of every five new college degrees, and claiming a large majority of new jobs emerging from the Bush Recession. Churches beware: to go on withholding full equality for women could well become the path to oblivion.
Still, American democracy has never been more tenuous than it is today. It is deflowered by the excessive concentration of wealth, which comes from the inability of free enterprise, i.e., capitalism, to live by principle — that principle being that it flowers only when it spreads wealth more than it concentrates. Working the other way around, as it is so far in the 21st century, it may well become the snake that swallows itself. The nation is damaged no less by the material excesses that go with consumer economics. Abundance has led Americans to indulge their appetites too easily and too freely, with little or no consideration of consequences, either short-term for their own health or long-term in the depletion of the earth. Such indulgence has made us the most wasteful of nations, leading the world in plagues unmatched in scale in our history — obesity and climate change.
Health care has blossomed, and still grows, in a fashion that deflowers the equality that universal care would provide. As a vested interest, it leads the parade of those deemed too big to fail. It claims not only a third more of the domestic national product here than it claims elsewhere in the Free World, it is also exploiting Medicare for excessive gain and thus undermining the efficacy and durability of Social Security, even as the nation’s population becomes increasingly senior. Doctors and hospitals alike are too often milking the program for personal gain by taking care to the limits regulations allow, rather than to a level optimal for the patient.
In the countries that already have universalized their health care, the doctors are all drawn to the professions for two reasons: the opportunity to serve, and the desire to prove themselves. They are rewarded with a comfortable middle-class life style and the respect of society for their commitment to serve. In the United States, doctors share the same two drives. American doctors today commonly live as millionaires, especially those specialized in their practice. The old medical school joke still holds: the A students go into research, the B students into teaching, and the C students into wealth — suffered at the best country clubs, or yacht clubs. Their incomes help fellow Americans pay the world’s highest prices for good care. Where it is at times the best care the world has, only an elite clientele can afford it. (The world, though, must thank those A students who staff the most advanced center of medical research, the National Institutes of Health.)
American politics have turned 21st-century government into its own game of deflowering democracy. History suggests that it started with the neoconservatives who invaded Washington with the Reagan presidency. While hailing government as the enemy, they made it instead into their own rosebush, growing it steadily larger in order that they would have boundless petals to pluck as corporate welfare. Almost entirely absent in neocon power are women. Rarely are women warmongers.
Nowhere has the corporate welfare since been more abundant than in the arms race, which has become an endless quest for the ultimate weapon. Reagan’s neocons spurned President Eisenhower’s warning against the growth of the military-industrial complex and declared that the Cold War demanded a multitude of new weapons systems that soon would be delivered in a rush of reckless cost overruns — as neocons smiled their way to the bank. Becoming the lone superpower, the United States continues to spend more on arms than the next dozen powers in rank combined, working itself into a paranoia that deflowers democracy, while making war increasingly tempting.
President Reagan found it tempting enough to flex his big new military muscle by whipping up on pipsqueak Granada, again deflowering democracy. President Bush II, egged by VP Cheney, found the temptation so irresistible that his team lied to both Congress and the United Nations to justify the audaciously insane invasion of Iraq. He coupled his military adventuring with railroading across-the-board tax cuts that immediately consumed the budget surpluses inherited from President Clinton. If only the “shock and awe” that first hit Bagdad and led him to claim “Mission Accomplished” had ended there. For the besieged taxpayers, there’s no end in sight. Bush triggered an unbroken run of unprecedented budget deficits, with the bill for Iraq alone growing after a decade to more than $l.7 trillion. There may be no greater irony of Republican politics and its long legacy of fiscal responsibility than the fact that the Reagan presidency more than doubled the national debt, and the Bush II presidency more than doubled it again. Debt surely deflowers democracy. War most of all!
It will be intriguing to see how the George W. Bush Library opening on the Southern Methodist University campus spins his legacy. History is bound to show that his presidency was the most destructive the nation has seen, from the reckless tax cuts and Iraq War to the Great Recession, sandwiched between with steady exportation of better-paying jobs, collapse of the housing industry, the near death of Detroit, the looming failure of the big banks, and numbers of poor and jobless greater than those of the Great Depression. His was a presidency of impetuousness, augmented by VP Cheney’s appetite for war. It cannot avoid the reality that in the highest office readiness to shoot from the hip is no substitute for the serious intelligence that allows voters to hope the job can be done right.
Democracy is also deflowered by government secrecy. Drones could become as much a threat to ourselves as to our enemies. Never will we know that they are always in the right hands. Ironically, they, among other weapon systems, deflower the 2nd Amendment. What security does a closet full of guns provide against intruders armed with drones and rocket launchers?
Still, the surest deflowering comes in the making and the practice of law. Large audiences are nodding, but hardly smiling, when Ralph Nader avers that Washington and Congress have become “the withering heights.” The legal profession has always been a menace to itself. That won’t change as long as it remains regulated solely by itself. However well-intention the Bar Association is in its avowed promise to prove that self-regulation works, it doesn’t. The enormous fees and fat settlements that flow from their work show how easily and consistently self interest may outweigh the public interest. The profession has in a sense perfected its own game of extortion. Too often the question is not the fee that the case justifies but what the client can pay.
No where is this more fully demonstrated than in the growing supremacy of corporate power, enabled by the complicity of the legal profession. The bigger the corporation, the more legal counsel it can muster to thwart the general welfare. As global trade has boomed, multinational corporations have become more insular, freer and freer to make their own rules. And the equally insular legal profession is all too happy to collect large fees for helping them play that game, both parties caring little for the will of the people, as both freely deflower democracy. The illustrious and controversial Texas journalist, Jim Hightower, put this connection in these words: “a deep-pocketed corporation’s pack of snarling lawyers [whose] judicial system itself is cumbersome, slow, and costly. And to us uninitiated observers, a courtroom’s cult-like rituals, punctilious language, and black-robed authoritarians are intimidating. No wonder so many of the workers, consumers, small businesses, and others who get stomped on by corporate powers shy away from taking their legitimate grievances into those chambers.”
So insular has the profession become that it loses affinity for and touch with the law, even to the extent that the Supreme Court loses it too. Corporate power is now spinning nations and laws almost at will. With lawyers the willing gatekeepers, as long as the price is right? How do we know that corporate power owns the Supreme Court? When the Supreme Court awards corporations the same standing on First Amendment rights that persons are meant hold. The Court’s ruling views corporations as people. Isn’t that tantamount to telling them that, with bottomless pockets, they can pee on WeThePeople, which is what they’re doing anyway. How ironic that it leaves the Court and the Bill of Rights all wet too! The court could hardly be more prominent in the “the withering heights” of Washington, whose gardens are kept awash in flowers by seasons but could yet become democracy’s burial ground, marked only by weeds.
A member of my family tried law school for a year, but dropped it because he found idealism totally absent. “It all turned on technicalities,” he said. How can the rule of law, or the practice of it, under the Constitution ignore the spirit of it? The profession and the law both fail American democracy if they are not in step with the Preamble of the Constitution, in establishing Justice and promoting the general welfare. The law satisfies the Constitution only if it keeps the spirit of it, so richly portrayed in the Preamble. Surely the Bill of Rights lives by that spirit. The Supreme Court is useless unless it lives by it too. It fails it when it makes no distinction between corporations and people, because corporations have never been intended to serve Justice, the general welfare, or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Their sole pursuit is profit.
Must government of the people, by the people, and for the people perish under corporate power and its enslavement of the law profession? Maybe not, if two promising trends continue to flower:
- Women must keep rising, growing their power until it levels every playing field, from corporate board rooms and executive suites to the practice of law and command of more than half the seats in Congress, as their majority of the population warrants.
- By the same warrant, they must consistently fill half the seats on the Supreme Court. Only then can they count, for sure, on equal protection of the law and total say on the management of their own health.
Equality is equality only when its total equality — of opportunity, in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Anything short of it goes on deflowering democracy. Always superior to men at caring, women now hold the ultimate lever of power — majority control of the ballot box. Hopefully they will assert it in time to regrow the spirit of the Constitution, and start democracy blooming anew. They are the last hope that WeThePeople can again outrank corporate power.
Short of that, the deflowering of democracy will go on apace, until it couples inexorably with climate change to bury us for sure in the weeds, the only thing then left to flower.
Frank Mensel — expanded April 2013