Power and Responsibility in Democracy

The idea of “freedom” as an American trait is, ultimately, one of power. It’s a promise of the power that every individual has broad, inalienable rights which will not be hindered by governance. Unfortunately, we all too often see, and historically always have seen, this as nothing more than a rhetorical device, as said freedom is frequently stripped from various groups by those who wield political power in the name of things such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion.

There’s an old adage, popularized by Marvel comics’ Spider-man, but traceable all the way back to the first century BC, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In the words of Rudyard Kipling, later quoted in 1931 by Stanley Baldwin, ‘Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ Power wielded without responsibility is immoral. It’s is unethical. It is a weapon for those lacking integrity. A nation and its people that insists upon freedom and the power therein, wearing this freedom as a point of pride, but eschewing the responsibility said power is due is not the hero it claims to be, but a villain to those over whom said “freedom” can be wielded as a tool of oppression.

We have to recognize that the founding fathers, while deeply flawed individuals, had specific intents around what the rights and freedoms enshrined within the constitution were supposed to mean. Regardless of individual motivations for the Revolution or American independence, the founding documents were to ensure that Americans had rights AS A GROUP to be able to stand up to injustice, not only foreign but also domestic, and to defend the country and its citizens against those who would threaten it. It was a great experiment in democracy, with the idea being that it wasn’t servants of a sovereign government, but a voice and equal representation for the safety, security, and betterment of all citizens. (Note: There are of course caveats to “all” in this context, but that is pertinent to the “deeply flawed” comment above, and is a whole separate discussion of history and society, which is not directly relevant to this essay’s discussion on intent, i.e. the spirit of the law)

Over the past 200+ years, we have seen a steady cultural shift away from a semi-collectivist mentality, to the point where these freedoms around which the Constitution, and, by proxy the nation and it’s government, no longer mean we as a nation should stand up for each other, and instead has become toxic individualism; justification that we as individuals can tell others to “fuck off” as we have no duty to any other person, including fellow Americans. This is something that seems to have accelerated in recent decades, starting with Post-WW2 America.

In the latter half of the 1900s, we saw greater industrialization and technological advances, changes in civil rights, DRASTIC changes in race and gender representation within the workplace, and overall increases in individual and household wealth, though not without serious institutional inequality that still persists to this day. That inequality, though, is directly connected to those in positions of influence, not just in all levels of government, but also in industry, with the majority of those in power also being amongst the groups who have historically not been subject to discrimination or outright oppression.

As wealth and influence have increased, so has the concept of individualism within the US. The whole concept of “pulling one’s self up by their bootstraps” is absurdly representative of this. The phrase, as best as I can trace, originated in a science textbook from the late 1800’s with the question “Why can not a man lift himself by pulling up on his bootstraps?” This entered into the common lexicon as a sarcastic phrase, suggesting an impossible accomplishment, yet over time, has somehow come to imply socioeconomic advancement solely on one’s own work and merit, which completely ignores the plethora of factors involved, many of which are well outside an individual’s control. We’ve become a nation led by people who are so thoroughly dedeicated to ignoring or denying any and all advantages they had in order to get to the positions they are in, that they claim, without a hint of irony, to be self made, and anybody who isn’t successful is lesser in some way.

This generation in power is built on the backs of those who came before, yet reject the reality of their own success as well as any concept of collectivism, to the point that they have actively made the country drastically worse for those who come after them to a scale that has never been seen before in the history of the nation. They are focused on retaining or growing their own wealth and power to the point of dereliction of the responsibility to the power they hold, a power that was meant to be granted by the will of the people, but which has been abused to the point that said will has been manipulated out of the hands of those they are supposed to represent (for example: gerrymandering, the electoral college, abuse of the fillibuster in Congress, extremist political partisanship, etc.).

More to the point, and with regard to everything we have seen very recently within the news and throughout the country; inaction in response to mass shootings, police action against peaceful protest, systemic racism, denying people bodily autonomy, and so many other issues is trampling on the spirit upon which this country was founded. There is a divide between the letter and the spirit of the law that has to be recognized, much in the way that we recognize that language itself changes over time, because the way we view and understand the world around us and the people in it evolves, and too many of those in power, especially those who claim to be constitutional originalists, refuse to look at the spirit of the law, the concept of democracy, and the broad intent behind the words that were written, to instead focus on the specifics of language from over two centuries ago, to specifically weaponize political doctrine against societal change, and instead for the betterment of themselves and their friends.

There are a few terms that could rightly describe where we are with our government: A plutocracy, a kleptocracy, a kakistocracy. None of these are anything to be proud of. We, not just as the nation as a whole, but as the citizens of such, do have the promise of many freedoms, and thus the potential for great power. It is long past time we also find the responsibility that comes with it before we tear ourselves apart.

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