“World’s Oldest Democracy”: The Myth & The Reality

Part 3

Civil Rights Movement

Abolition of slavery in 1865 did not put an end to racial discrimination. As a result, the U.S. Congress had to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to address this problem. However, the law was rarely enforced. What was worse was that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883 actually declared the Act as unconstitutional on the plea that the Congress had no power to regulate the conduct of individuals and that the Fourteenth Amendment only prohibited discrimination by the State and not individuals. Furthermore, in yet another retrograde ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court on 18 May 1896 upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” As fallout of this shocking ruling, in 1905 under the leadership of Dr.W.E.B.DuBois, a Harvard scholar, a group of 32 prominent African-Americans met to discuss the challenges facing “people of color” in the U.S. and to chalk out possible strategies and solutions. The group drew up a plan for forceful action demanding adult suffrage, equal economic and educational opportunities, full civil rights, and an end to segregation. Since the meeting was held at Niagara Falls, the initiative came to be known as the Niagara Movement.

The race riots that broke out in the summer of 1908 at Springfield, Illinois, the home of Abraham Lincoln, was a shocking reminder of racial divide that had pervaded even the Northern part of the United States. In a riot that raged for two days, a mob containing many of the town’s “best citizens,” killed and wounded scores of African-Americans, and drove thousands from the city. Reports about this incident brought together concerned citizens, who took initiative in founding the multi-racial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on 12 February 1909, which coincided with the birth-centenary of President Abraham Lincoln. Those who took active interest in its formation include William English Walling, Mary Ovington, Ida Wells, Oswald Garrison Villard, Lillian Wald, and Moorfield Storey. The Niagara Movement merged with the NAACP.

In its early years, the NAACP concentrated on using the courts to attack “Jim Crow laws” and other disfranchising constitutional provisions. In 1913, the NAACP launched a public protest when President Woodrow Wilson officially introduced segregation into the Federal Government. In 1917, in Buchanan vs. Warley, the Supreme Court had to concede that States could not restrict and officially segregate African-Americans into residential districts. The organization also successfully challenged the notorious “White Primary” system in the South. Southern States had created White-only primaries as another way of barring African-Americans from the political process. Since Southern States were one-party States dominated by the Democratic Party, the primaries were the only competitive contests. In 1944, in Smith vs. Allwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the White Primary. 1915-1944 was also the period when the African-American population and the entire working class had to endure the wrath of the rejuvenated, and reportedly five million strong, Ku Klux Klan in its most aggressive phase. What was equally worse was that when McCarthyism ruled the roost in the U.S. from the second half of the 1940s to the mid-1950s, the proponents of McCarthyism chose to disregard the fact that apartheid was a legal institution in the U.S. at that time.

A crowning achievement was NAACP’s legal victory on 17 May 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education opposed segregation and rejected separate White and Colored school systems, which by implication overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been legally sanctioned in 1896. (However, integration was easier said than done; bitter struggles had to waged for ending school segregation – the problem has not been eradicated to this day. (1 ) A major change from mere legal action to a strategy of mass action took place in 1955 following the Rosa Parks incident. On 01 December 1955, Rosa Parks, who was Secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of NAACP, was arrested and fined for refusing to give up her seat to a White man on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The uproar that followed her arrest inspired the launching of the largest civil disobedience movement in the U.S. history spearheaded by NAACP and other civil rights organizations. It began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

At the initiative of Edgar Daniel Nixon, the President of the Montgomery Chapter of NAACP, a meeting of concerned people was held at which a decision was taken to set up an organization called “Montgomery Improvement Association” (MIA) to carry on the protest. The meeting also selected Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the charismatic 25-year old newly appointed minister in one of the local churches (and one of the few among the local clergy who was then willing to take up the cause) as President of MIA. At the call of the MIA, starting from 05 December 1955, the vast majority of the town’s 50,000 African-American population refused to travel on public buses as a protest against segregated seating. The organizers initially used taxies driven by African-American drivers, who charged merely bus fare to transport the protesters. However, after city officials forbade that practice, MIA organized a well-networked system of carpools and church station wagons that enabled the protesters to carry on their routine work without being forced to depend on the racially segregated public bus system.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on 04 June 1956 ruled that segregation on Alabama’s public buses was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. After the State authorities challenged the Order, the U.S. Supreme Court on 13 November 1956 upheld the lower court’s ruling. However, the successful boycott, which lasted 381 days, was withdrawn only after the Supreme Court’s official documents were received on 20 December 1956, which formally put an end to segregation of Blacks and Whites on public buses in Alabama. Strangely enough, the said Supreme Court order was applicable only to the State of Alabama. (It was the U.S. Supreme Court Order of 05 December 1960 in Boynton vs. Virginia under the Interstate Commerce Act that made segregation in public transportation illegal all over the U.S.)

Nevertheless, the Montgomery struggle sparked off major anti-segregation boycotts across Southern United States. Martin Luther King, who was subsequently catapulted as the principal national leader of the U.S. civil rights movement, also took the initiative in forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to unite the Black churches behind the civil rights movement. Other organizations that were active in the campaign for civil rights include the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Some of the notable civil rights actions of that period were: the sit-in at Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960; the Freedom Rides of 1961; the March on Washington on 28 August 1963; the Selma to Montgomery March in March 1965; and the voter registration campaigns. Martin Luther King termed the struggle for civil rights the “Southern Freedom Movement” because the struggle was for more than civil rights under the law; it was also about fundamental issues of freedom, respect, dignity, and economic and social equality.

There was fierce resistance from the pro-segregationist Whites in the Southern states against the civil rights movement; the opposition was particularly violent against Black voter registration and voting. On the one hand, the conservative governments of the Southern states resorted to police repression and arrests of civil rights activists on trumped-up charges. On the other hand, illegal White supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) often resorted to terrorism, bombings, murders and brutality to prevent Blacks from voting. Simultaneously, the White Citizen Council (WCC), which was founded in 1954 as the legal front of the KKK, resorted to economic retaliation to achieve the same end. (WCC re-established itself as Council of Conservative Citizens in 1985.) However, mainstream media accounts of the daily humiliation heaped on Southern Blacks and the level of segregationist violence & harassment of civil rights workers and marchers, had a direct impact on generating public opinion through out the United States more in favour of the civil rights movement.

Voting Rights Act

The growing protests against the discriminatory and segregationist laws finally led to their banning in the Southern States with the enactment of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 on 02 July 1964, more than a year after it was introduced on 11 June 1963 in the U.S. Congress. The momentum created by this momentous achievement resulted in the signing into law the Voting Rights Act on 06 August 1965. According to Alexander Keysser:

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a milestone in American political history. A curious milestone, to be sure, since the essence of the act was simply to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment [enacted on 03 February 1870], which had been law for almost a century.

Keyssar further added that:

The Voting Rights Act did not suddenly put an end to racial discrimination in southern politics. To a considerable degree, the locus of conflict shifted from the right to vote to the value of the vote… but reports from the field made clear, to the Justice Department and the CCR [Commission on Civil Rights], that racial obstacles to enfranchisement per se also persisted long after 1965. As a result, the act was renewed three times after its initial passage, despite a political climate that grew more conservative with each passing decade. In 1970… the bill was renewed for five years, while the ban on literacy tests was extended to all states. In 1975, the act was extended for an additional seven years, and its reach enlarged to cover “language minorities”, including Hispanics, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Asian Americans; the “language minorities” formulation was, in effect, a means of redefining race to include other groups who had been victims of discrimination.”2

The temporary ban on literacy test was made permanent when President Gerald Ford signed the Voting Rights Amendment 1975 into law on 06 August 1975. The 1975 Amendment also required States to provide bilingual ballots and registration materials in areas with significant language minority populations. In 1982, the Voting Right Act’s core provisions were extended for an additional twenty-five years along with amendments including a clause establishing the right of a voter in need of assistance – due to blindness, disability or illiteracy – to receive such assistance from a person of his or her choice. On 27 July 2006, the U.S. Congress extended the Voting Rights Act by another twenty-five years. Meanwhile, through the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified on 07 July 1971, the voting age was lowered from 21 years to 18 years.

Lengthy durational residential requirement was another obstacle to enfranchisement. It was removed through the 1970 amendment to the Voting Rights Act that prohibited States from imposing more than thirty-day residency requirement for registration in presidential elections; at the same time it mandated that those who had relocated less than thirty days prior to an election could cast absentee ballots from their previous state of residence.

Absence of proper voter registration procedures was yet another major problem. Voter registration laws, which first emerged in Massachusetts as early as 1801, gradually spread to most other states between 1870 and 1914. However straightforward the principle of voter registration may have been, the precise specifications of registration laws were different from State to State and were often complex and difficult to navigate and, thus, open to manipulation. That is to say, while the objectives of such laws were to keep track of voters and to prevent frauds, they were also often used as a means of keeping primarily African-American, working-class, immigrant, and poor voters from the polls. What was also unique in the United States was that the burden of registration was on the individual and not on the State. Since complicated registration procedures also resulted in low turnouts, under pressure from concerned voluntary groups, the federal government began to consider the imposition of national voter registration standards. The first major proposals for national legislation came in the 1970s. The most important among them was the National Uniform Registration Act proposed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. However, the proposal fell through because of strong opposition from the conservative Democrats and almost all the Republicans, who had begun supporting conservative causes after the election of Richard Nixon as President in 1968. .

Despite the defeat of the proposal, a broad coalition of progressive and good government groups kept up their efforts to reform the voter registration process and they proposed the idea of utilizing the motor vehicle bureaus as an agency for the purpose. It was noticed that some 85 per cent of adult citizens in the U.S. had driver’s licenses that periodically had to be renewed and already served as identification papers. However, it was not until 1992, that the proponents of reform managed to wean away a few key Republicans to their side and ensured the passing of what came to be popularly known as the Motor Voter Bill. Although President George Bush Sr. vetoed the legislation, less than a year later, his successor, Bill Clinton, signed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which took effect on 01 January 1995. The NVR Act was, as Alexander Keyssar has pointed out:

a critical step in dismantling the multiple impediments to voting that had been erected between 1850s and World War I. By the end of the twentieth century, what had been a long historical swing toward contraction of the franchise had been decidedly reversed.3

The Act has made it easier for all U.S. citizens to register to vote and to maintain their registration, whereas earlier not only was the process of registration very cumbersome but also it had to be revived every two years. The significant changes in the U.S. electoral laws that were introduced between 1965 and 1995 had opened-up the possibility of universal franchise for the first time in U.S. history, i.e., 219 years after it was founded, by removing almost all obstacles in the way of the right to register to vote. However, since the onus of voter registration is not on the State but is still on the individual, it has considerable adverse impact on the total number of registrations. (In contrast, India had introduced universal franchise as early as 1950 and the onus of voter registration is primarily on the State; that there are serious loopholes in India’s electoral laws and electoral processes is another matter.)

Voter Apathy

Despite the enactment of the NVR Act, the fact that a sizable section of the eligible voters are not involved in the electoral process is a symptom of a greater malady in the U.S. political system. Alexander Keyssar has attempted to explain this malady as follows:

Although the formal right to vote is now nearly universal, few observers would characterize the United States as a vibrant democracy, as a nation where the equality of political rights offers release to a host of engaged and diverse political voices. The most telling symptom of the malady is the low level of popular participation in American elections: in recent years, only half of all eligible adults have voted in presidential elections, and fewer than 40 per cent generally cast their ballots in other contests…. In theory, of course, nonvoting could be a sign of contentment, of a satisfied electorate. But portraits of the nonvoting population make this rosy interpretation difficult to sustain: turnout is lowest among the poor, minorities and the less well-educated…. The people who are least likely to be content and complacent (and most likely to need government help) are those who are least likely to vote.4

In this regard, Keyssar has made two other pertinent observations:

(1) that: “… it is not a coincidence that nonvoters come disproportionately from the same social groups that in earlier decades were targets of restrictions on the franchise itself. Despite the Motor Voter bill [NVR Act], there remain procedural obstacles to registration that have a heavy impact on the poor and uneducated”; and

(2) that: “Perhaps more important, the political institutions and culture that evolved during the era of restricted suffrage spawned a political system that offers few attractive choices to the nation’s least well-off citizens. The two major political parties operate within a narrow, ideological spectrum; the programmatic differences between candidates often are difficult to discern; the core social and economic policies of both parties are shaped largely by the desire to foster economic growth and therefore to satisfy the business and financial communities. Ideas and proposals that might appeal to the poor … have been beyond the pale of modern American political discourse.”5

During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, for example, reportedly only about 169 million of the total 213 million eligible voters were registered voters with no less than 44 million eligible voters remaining unregistered. Out of the registered voters about 131 million, or approximately 61.6 per cent of the eligible voters, had finally cast their ballot. In other words, over 38 per cent or 82 million of the eligible voters remained outside the purview of the electoral process and this section belong, as Keyssar’s study shows, overwhelmingly to the working class and the poor. The truth is that a sizable section of the working people – the salaried and the wageworkers – remain un-enamoured by the State and National electoral process because they do not believe that they can bring about significant changes in the system. Even as late as 2008, just 12.4 per cent of the working class were in a position to exercise their democratic rights even in a limited way at their work place by being able to join a union.6 When the working people are prevented from exercising their democratic rights at their work place, they can hardly be expected to take active part in State and National level election processes especially when the prospect of benefiting from such participation is hardly evident.

The declining trend in union membership, which had at one time risen from 12.2 per cent in 1915 to a peak of 32.3 per cent in 1953, is a clear indication of the enormous pressure that is brought to bear on the U.S. working class to conform to norms set by their employers. According to a report that was published in Monthly Review (April 2005):

Unions have become noticeably weaker; in 2004 union workers comprised only 12.5 percent of employed workers. Just twenty-one years before, density was 20.1 percent. In the private sector, union density in 2004 was 7.9, its lowest level since the early 1900s…. Union workers make much higher wages and more and better fringe benefits than do nonunion workers…. In 2003, the union wage premium (the difference between union and nonunion wages after controlling for a variety of worker characteristics such as amount of schooling) was 15.5 percent (for black workers it was 20.9 percent and for Hispanics 23.2 percent)…. So as unions become less common, the wage gap between whites and minorities increases, as do those between blue- and white-collar workers, high school and college graduates, and low- and high-wage workers.7

As per the report of the U.S. Department of Labor, by 2008 the situation has worsened further for the bulk of the 138 million workforce: “In 2008, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $886 while those who were not represented by unions had median weekly earnings of $691.” The gap between the wage earnings of union and non-union workers is increasingly widening: the gap has widened from 15.5 per cent in 2003 to 22 per cent in 2008. It is clearly evident that while union membership was beneficial to unionised workers, denial of democratic rights to workers at the work place was immensely profitable to the employers.

Even the 12 per cent union membership is maintained with great difficulty since the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is entrusted with the task of conducting union elections in the U.S., conducts them in a patently undemocratic manner. Dr.Gordon Lafer, Professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, has revealed this in a study he had carried out in June 2005 for the ‘American Rights at Work’, an advocacy organisation that supports workers’ rights. According to the study titled “Free And Fair? How Labor Law Fails U.S. Democratic Standards”:

For a vote on unionization to be held, workers must first show the Board [NLRB] that they have the support of at least 30 percent of employees. Following that showing, the Board will set a date for an election and draw up a list of eligible voters…. Unfortunately, the secret ballot turns out to be the only point at which current union election procedures meet the standards of U.S. democracy…. There is, for instance, no right of free speech for voters in union elections. There is no equal access to media. Indeed, there is not even equal access to the names and contact information of eligible voters. There is no protection against partisan economic coercion of voters, virtually no regulation of campaign finance, and no separation between the “government” of a firm and the partisan behavior of anti-union managers. Finally, there is no guarantee that the will of the voters will be implemented on a reasonable schedule, and no meaningful enforcement for violators of electoral procedure.8

The report concluded that:

The analysis above points to an inescapable conclusion. The high hopes and bold words that accompanied the passage of the Wagner Act* have not been realized…. Indeed, from the point of view of the framers of the Constitution, of U.S. jurisprudence, and of state and federal statute, the current NLRB system is profoundly broken — and profoundly undemocratic. Whatever path labor law reform may take, it must begin with this understanding.9

[*The U.S. Senate Report on the NLRA (the National Labor Relations Act of 1935) explained that the legislation was motivated by the notion that “a worker in the field of industry, like a citizen in the field of government, ought to be free to form or join organizations, to designate representatives, and to engage in concerted activities.”10 ]

On 08 February 2007, Dr. Lafer submitted this report before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions during the hearing on the proposed Employee Free Choice Act. The conclusion that Dr. Lafer draws from his analysis of the working of the NLRB is very significant despite the exalted opinion he held about the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Large sections of the poor and less educated remain alienated from the electoral process precisely because the political system, which is guided by the U.S. Constitution, is designed to cater primarily to the interests of the wealthy class; it was so in 1787, it is so at the beginning of 2009. The broadening of franchise has so far had absolutely no impact on changing this basic character of the U.S. Constitution.

Nature of U.S. Constitution

As early as 1912, Prof. Charles Austin Beard of Columbia University, New York, a leading political scientist and historian of that period, in an essay titled “The Supreme Court and the Constitution” had shed light on the real character of the U.S. Constitution. Prof. Beard, who was later elected as President of the American Political Science Association (1926) and as President of the American Historical Association (1933), showed that the framers of the Constitution were less interested in furthering democratic principles than in protecting private property and the interests of the wealthy class. Prof. Beard’s assessment was that:

The makers of the Constitution represented the solid, conservative, commercial and financial interests of the country…. Indeed, every page of the laconic record of the proceedings of the convention, preserved to posterity by Mr. Madison, shows conclusively that the members of that assembly were not seeking to realize any fine notions about democracy and equality, but were striving with all the resources of political wisdom at their command to set up a system of government that would be stable and efficient, safeguarded on the one hand against the possibilities of despotism and on the other against the onslaught of majorities.11

In a subsequent detailed study titled An Economic Interpretation of The Constitution of The United States (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1913), Prof. Beard noted as follows:

In an examination of the structure of American society in 1787, we first encounter four groups whose economic status had a definite legal expression: the slaves, the indented servants, the mass of men who could not qualify for voting under the property tests imposed by the state constitutions and laws, and women, disenfranchised and subjected to the discriminations of the common law. These groups were, therefore, not represented in the Convention which drafted the Constitution…12

Therefore, Prof. Beard posed the following questions:

…did the men who formulated the fundamental law of the land possess the kinds of property which were immediately and directly increased in value or made more secure by the results of their labours at Philadelphia?…. The purpose of such an inquiry is not, of course, to show that the Constitution was made for the personal benefit of the members of the Convention. Far from it…. The only point here considered is: Did they represent distinct groups whose economic interests they understood and felt in concrete, definite form through their own personal experience with identical property rights, or were they working merely under the guidance of abstract principles of political science?13

Prof. Beard then went on to give the following explanation:

It is difficult for the superficial student of the Constitution, who has read only the commentaries of the legists, to conceive of that instrument as an economic document. It places no property qualifications on voters or officers; it gives no outward recognition of any economic groups in society; it mentions no special privileges to be conferred upon any class. It betrays no feeling, such as vibrates through the French constitution of 1791; its language is cold, formal, and severe.

However, according to him:

The true inwardness of the Constitution is not revealed by an examination of its provisions as simple propositions of law; but by a long and careful study of the voluminous correspondence of the period*, contemporary newspapers and pamphlets, the records of the debates in the Convention at Philadelphia and in the several state conventions, and particularly, The Federalist, which was widely circulated during the struggle over ratification.14

[*A great deal of this valuable material has been printed in the Documentary History of the Constitution, Vols. IV and V; a considerable amount has been published in the letters and papers of the eminent men of the period; but an enormous mass still remains in manuscript form in the U.S. Library of Congress.]

That there were conflicting interests in society was admitted by none other than James Madison, who is considered the ‘Father of the Constitution’ and who went on to become the fourth President of the U.S. (1809-1817). According to Madison:

… the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes actuated by different sentiments and views.15

Therefore, in Prof. Beard’s opinion:

…to show that the concept of the Constitution as a piece of abstract legislation reflecting no group interests and recognizing no economic antagonisms is entirely false. It was an economic document drawn with superb skill by men whose property interests were immediately at stake; and as such it appealed directly and unerringly to identical interests in the country at large.16

Subsequently, on the basis of his detailed study, Prof. Beard drew the following conclusions:

(a) that “The movement for the Constitution of the United States was originated and carried through principally by four groups of personalty interests which had been adversely affected under the Articles of Confederation: money, public securities, manufactures, and trade and shipping;

(b) that “A large propertyless mass was, under the prevailing suffrage qualifications, excluded at the outset from participation (through representatives) in the work of framing the Constitution.”; and

(c) that “The Constitution was essentially an economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to government and morally beyond the reach of popular majorities.”17

None other than Dr. Russell Kirk, who has been described by President Ronald Regan as “the prophet of American conservatism”, has certified that the findings of Prof. Beard are absolutely correct. As the distinguished fellow of The Heritage Foundation, the premier conservative think-tank in the U.S., Dr.Kirk, in a lecture titled “The Constitution’s Conservative Character”, which was delivered on 14 July 1987, emphasised the need for “protecting private property.” According to him:

This intellectual and moral conservatism was paralleled among the Framers by their conservative attachment to private property and private enterprise. Most of them were men of some wealth, the times considered; many possessed large tracts of land or valuable commercial properties, and desired more. No economic levellers were to be encountered among them. As class, they were eighteenth century gentlemen, not demagogues. Charles Beard and other historians have sufficiently established the fact that the Framers generally sought to protect private property and to make possible greater economic prosperity for the nation–themselves included. What is surprising about that? What is reprehensible about it?

Thus, there appears to be little disagreement regarding the elitist nature of the U.S. Constitution!

Iniquitous Development

The iniquitous development that has taken place in the U.S. over the last two centuries or more testifies to the findings of Prof. Charles Beard regarding the elitist nature of the U.S. Constitution. The earliest available data regarding disparities in wealth has been brought out by Prof. Henry Laurens Call, who made a presentation on 27 December 1906 before the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Columbia College, New York. According to him, in the year 1900: “The… wealth of the United States, if equally divided, would give $1,318 to every individual in the land, including babes,—or about $5,000 to every family; as against $307 per capita, or $1,200 per family, in 1850.” [Based on U.S. Census data of 1850 & 1900.] Moreover, Prof. Call had estimated that the total wealth of the millionaires and half-millionaires in 1854 was about $100,000,000, which “gave to the rich men of the country, in 1854, just one-hundredth part, or one per cent, of the total aggregate wealth of the United States.”18

However, Prof. Call had noticed that by the beginning of the 20th century there was a dramatic rise in the degree of concentration of wealth. Prof. Call’s incisive observations have been reconfirmed a century later. According to recent trends in household wealth in the U.S., in 2004, the top 10 per cent of households, which would include all the millionaires and half-millionaires, owned 71.2 per cent of the total privately held wealth in the U.S. With the next 10 per cent of households owning another 13.4 per cent, the top 20 per cent of households thus owned 84.7 per cent of all privately held wealth in the U.S. On the other hand, the bottom 80 per cent of the households owned only 15.3 per cent of the total privately held wealth in the U.S.19 Another study has noted that the concentration of wealth among the top 25 per cent of the households has nearly doubled during the period 1995-2004. According to this study:

While aggregate household net wealth grew from $25.9 trillion in 1995 to $50.1 trillion in 2004 (both in 2004 dollars), nearly 90 percent of the net gains occurred only among the top quartile of households in the wealth distribution.

This sharp increase in concentration of wealth within such a short period is an absolutely startling development! As Prof. Call said in 1906:

Surely it is worth our while to inquire how a power so vast…has been acquired. If these enormous fortunes have been honestly earned, and are the rightful property of their possessors, then must the world of toil beneath submit as best it can.… These millions tell, in fact, no honest tale…. when single individuals are found in possession of hundreds of millions, and even billions of dollars, the suspicion attaches that so much wealth could not have been honestly earned. The wage earner… cannot believe that a single individual in this land has actually “earned” a billion dollars in the course of a short generation; nor yet that there exists tens of thousands of other individuals in this republic, the average “earnings” of each of whom equal the combined possessions of a full hundred thousand of the sons of toil. But if these fortunes have not been earned, then the conclusion is irresistible that they have been… appropriated.20

What kind of democratic system is that, which allows a tiny minority to corner the wealth of the nation through questionable means over a 150-year period; where the majority of people remain captive to the machinations of the said tiny minority; where poverty and want are allowed to co-exist in the midst of plenty? Several U.S. citizens have begun asking these questions and are expressing their concerns regarding what they term as the “subversion of democracy” in the U.S. For example, Gar Alperovitz, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland, is of the opinion that the subversion of democracy is clearly visible in rampant inequities in the distribution of wealth and the immense power corporations and special interests wield in Washington. In the introductory chapter of his book titled America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty and Our Democracy (Wiley, New Jersey, 2004), Prof. Alperovitz states that:

Systemic change, above all, involves questions of how property is owned and controlled–i.e., the locus of real power in most systems…. At the heart of the new thinking is a different principle––that the ownership of wealth must benefit the vast majority directly.

In a subsequent publication titled Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It back (The New Press, New York, 2008), Prof. Alperovitz, along with Lew Daly, have tried to advance these arguments further. They are of the view that:

…if most of what we have today is attributable to advances we inherit in common … why, specifically, should this gift of our collective history not more generously and broadly benefit all members of society?”

However, the reality was different:

The richest 1 percent of households owns nearly half of all individually owned investment assets…. The bottom 90 percent of the population owns less than 15 percent; the bottom half of the population — 150 million Americans — own less than 1 percent.

Therefore, the question they have raised is:

“If America’s vast wealth is mainly a gift of our common past, how, specifically, can such disparities be justified?”

To confront the dangers that concentrated wealth and power increasingly engender, concerned U.S. citizens began coming together and in 2007 set up “The Working Group on Extreme Inequality.” Based at the Institute for Policy Studies (Washington, D.C.), the objective of the Working Group is to promote, through education, advocacy and mobilization, “support for public policies that can address the concentration of wealth and, at the same time, raise badly needed revenue for social investments that foster real economic opportunity.” Some of the findings of the Working Group regarding the growing inequality in the U.S. are very revealing. According to one of its reports that was released on 09 June 2008:

* “Between 1979 and 2006, the top five percent of American families saw their real incomes increase 87 percent. Over the same period, the lowest-income fifth saw zero increase in real income.”

* “In 1979, the average income of the top 5 percent of families was 11.4 times as large as the average income of the bottom 20 percent. In 2006, the ratio was 21.3 times.”

* “In 1962, the wealth of the richest one percent of U.S. households was roughly 125 times greater than that of the typical household. By 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, it was 190 times”

* “In 2006, CEOs of major U.S. companies collected as much money from one day on the job as average workers made over the entire year. These CEOs averaged $10.8 million in total compensation, the equivalent of over 364 times the pay of an average American worker.”21)

The co-existence of poverty in the midst of plenty is a distinguishing feature of the socio-economic set-up in the U.S. For example: “In 2007, 37.3 million people were in poverty, up from 36.5 million in 2006.” 22 The poverty rate among Black and Hispanic population were 24.5 and 21.5 per cent respectively as compared to the poverty rate of 12.5 per cent of the total population in 2007. These figures are based on “poverty thresholds on the economy food plan — the cheapest of four food plans developed by the Department of Agriculture”, as officially defined by the U.S. Government. In other words, in the year 2007, 37.3 million U.S. citizens or 12.5 per cent of the total U.S. population lived in absolute poverty, meaning that they did not have enough food to eat, let alone afford other basic necessities of life. Moreover, in the year 2007, 45.7 million people or 15.3 per cent of the total U.S. population also remained without health insurance.23 (In their well-researched work titled Uninsured in America – Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity, which was published in April 2005, Susan Starr Sered and Rushika Fernandopulle have vividly described the tribulations and trauma faced by the medically uninsured in the U.S.)

The number of poverty-stricken and the uninsured in the U.S. far outnumber the total population of Iraq, which is only around 28 million. The U.S. Government can afford to spend 3 trillion U.S. Dollars for supposedly “Helping Iraqis Build Inclusive Democratic Institutions.” However, it cannot even contemplate spending a fraction of that amount to wipe out poverty from the “world’s oldest democracy” and provide medical insurance cover to 45 million needy U.S. citizens! [In their book titled The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, (W.W.Norton, New York, 2008), Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes have argued that: “The Iraq War will cost us $3 trillion, and much more.” The elitist nature of the U.S. state is writ large in the manner in which it has chosen to exhibit its skewed priorities! The fanciful claim that its objective is to promote the cause of “democracy” cannot hide the fact that USA’s adventurism in Iraq is mainly an attempt to grab Iraq’s oil wealth.

None other than Alan Greenspan has admitted this truth. According to The Sunday Times (London) dated 16 September 2007:

AMERICA’s elder statesman of finance, Alan Greenspan, has shaken the White House by declaring that the prime motive for the war in Iraq was oil…. ‘I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil,’ he says.

Greenspan has disclosed this fact in his memoir The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World (Penguin Books, New York, 2007). In fact, Australia’s Defence Minister Brendan Nelson had let the cat out of the bag a couple of months earlier on 05 July 2007 while being interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. According to The Daily Telegraph (London) dated 06 July 2007:

Australia was embroiled in an intense political brawl today after its defence minister said that access to Iraq’s oil was a key reason for keeping troops there…. Defence minister Brendan Nelson’s remarks will fuel worldwide suspicion among critics of the invasion that it was a grab for oil, rather than an attempt to destroy alleged weapons of mass destruction or an exercise in building democracy.

The purported claim of establishing “freedom” and “democracy” in Iraq offered the necessary excuse for pressing forward USA’s imperialistic designs in the region in the interests of USA’s wealthy class! There is sufficient historical evidence to prove the contention that material benefits were the motivating factor not only behind the war against Iraq but also behind almost every other U.S. military intervention worldwide, especially after WW-II.

  • Read Part 1 and Part 2.
    1. According to a news report dated 14 January 2009: “Blacks and Hispanics are more separate from white students than at any time since the civil rights movement and many of the schools they attend are struggling, said the report by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California…. 39 percent of black students and 40 percent of students from the fast-growing Latino minority are increasingly isolated in schools in which there is little racial mixing, the report said…. The report also found that the average black and Latino student is now in a school that has nearly 60 percent of students from families who are near or below the poverty line.” []
    2. Alexander Keysser, The Right to Vote – The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, Basic Books, New York, 2000, p. 265 []
    3. Keyssar, p. 315. []
    4. Keyssar, p. 320. []
    5. Keyssar, p. 320-321. []
    6. Bureau of Labour Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 28 January 2009. []
    7. Michael D. Yates, “A Statistical Portrait of the U.S. Working Class,” April 2005. []
    8. Gordon Lafer, “Free And Fair? How Labor Law Fails U.S. Democratic Standards,” p. 6-9. []
    9. Lafer, p. 27. []
    10. Lafer, p. 3. []
    11. Charles Austin Beard, “The Supreme Court and the Constitution, (1912). []
    12. Charles Austin Beard, An Economic Interpretation of The Constitution of The United States (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1913), p. 24. []
    13. Beard (1913), p. 73. []
    14. Beard (1913), p. 152. []
    15. Quoted in Beard (1913), p. 156-157. []
    16. Beard (1913), p. 188. []
    17. Beard (1913), p. 324. []
    18. Henry Laurens Call, The Concentration of Wealth, (Chndler Publishing, 1907), p. 1-3. []
    19. Edward N. Wolff, “Recent Trends in Household Wealth in the United States: Rising Debt and the Middle-Class Squeeze,” Levy Economics Institute, Table 2, p. 11. []
    20. Call, p. 15. []
    21. See: Report of the Working Group on Extreme Inequality titled “How Unequal Are We?.” (For more sources on poverty and inequality in the U.S., see: article titled “Extreme Inequality: A Nation Guide,” The Nation, 30 June 2008. []
    22. Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, & Jessica C. Smith”Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States,” US Census Bureau, August 2007, p. 12. []
    23. Carmen DeNavas-Walt, et al., p. 19. []
    N.D. Jayaprakash is the Joint Secretary of the Delhi Science Forum & National Coordination Committee (NCC) Member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), India. He can be reached at: jaypdsf@gmail.com. Read other articles by N.D..

    6 comments on this article so far ...

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    1. Michael Kenny said on March 16th, 2009 at 2:22pm #

      Did Mr Jayaprakash really need three articles to come to the earth-shaking conclusion that a constitution drafted in 1788, a revolutionary event in its time, reflected the progressive ideology of 1788, namely liberalism (in the European sense)? The draughtsmen of the US Constitution were radical revolutionaries in their own day, but would be regarded in 2009 as being as outdated as the clothes they wore. A constitution drafted today would have much in common with the 1788 document, in regard, in particular, to representative institutions and basic rights, although with differeces in form and content, but would also include a fairly solid chapter on social end economic rights, reflecting thereby the ideas of 2009. But is any of this news to anybody? Times change and ideas change, and what was progressive in 1788 has become reactionary in 2009. What else is new?

    2. danE said on March 16th, 2009 at 4:17pm #

      re Monsignor Kenny: So I guess Chattel Slavery and Genocidal Armed Territorial Aggression were “progressive” in 1788, but have since become outdated?

    3. dj lane said on March 17th, 2009 at 1:41pm #

      It’s unfortunate for N.D. Jayaprakash that his text does not follow American editing conventions: i.e., it has too many exclamation marks for an American reader. That the convention is unfair is, of course, possible, but by then the discussion has already turned from N.D. Jayaprakash’s thesis towards the sizzle and not the steak. To put it in the baldest manner possible, not that I necessarily subscribe to the sentiment but that airing the objection is the best way to head it off, to an educated American the tone of Mr. Jayaprakash’s prose is that of a 14-year-old girl from the San Fernando Valley, not that of a serious assessment of American democracy. He is, to be sure, not such a person, but that is how his argument will be heard. Now, it’s all well and good to object to such a characterization of his prose–the point is such objections merely harden the opinion. The disjunction between N.D. Jayaprakash’s intent (a hardhitting puncture of American self-descriptions) and what he has achieved (a kind of ethnic comedy) is pathos, due surely to the differences between American and Indian Standard Written English. But it seems absurd for Mr. Jayaprakash not to understand that those differences exist. It reinforces the notion of him as a provincial, creating a message that isn’t intended. Or so I suppose. Mr. Jayaprakash, style matters.

    4. oPL said on March 18th, 2009 at 1:24pm #

      It’s unfortunate for dj lane that his text does not follow American spelling conventions: i.e., it contains the phrase “To put it in the baldest manner possible”, in which the word “baldest” (superlative form of the adjective meaning “lacking a natural or usual covering”) is used in place of the word “boldest” (superlative form of the adjective meaning “fearless before danger”). That the standard spelling conventions of the English language are not faithful to its phonetic nature is, of course, possible, but by then the discussion has already turned from dj lane’s supposed attention to detail towards the sizzle and not the steak. To put it in the ***boldest*** manner possible, not that I necessarily subscribe to the sentiment, but that airing the objection is the best way to head it off. To an educated speaker of English the quality of dj lane’s prose is that of a 14-year-old girl from the San Fernando Valley, not that of a serious criticism of an obviously well informed article. He is, to be sure, not such a person, but that is how his argument will be heard. Now, it’s all well and good to object to such a characterization of his prose–the point is such objections merely harden the opinion. The disjunction between dj lane’s intent (a hardhitting puncture of standards of style in a “province” where English has been spoken for centuries, and has developed its own “provincial” standard) and what he has achieved (a typo) is pathos, due surely to the differences between his own approach to criticism and a serious one. But it seems absurd for dj lane not to understand that those differences exist. It reinforces the notion of him as an uneducated individual, creating a message that isn’t intended. Or so I suppose. dj lane, spelling matters.

    5. Billy G said on March 18th, 2009 at 5:22pm #

      Very interesting articles, but I am surprised that Mr. Jayaprakash doesn’t mention the millions of US citizens that have been permanently disenfranchised and will never be able to vote, in particular felons and ex-felons who have been sentenced to more than a year in prison and who are disproportionately represented by minorities, the working class, and the poor. The effect of their disenfranchisement on the 2000 presidential election has been well documented.

    6. sastry.m said on March 22nd, 2009 at 8:50am #

      Once again a concise article with an excellent and thorough presentation of the history of world’s oldest democracy. After all every expressed opinion is subject to acceptance or rejection as well as praise or censure. If we consider these polar opposites we can attribute them to a single entity, namely the human mind. The very title of the article by Mr.Jayaprkash seeking to consider World’s Oldest Democracy as Myth and/or The Reality is in itself subject to scrutiny at a subtle conscious level of Mind along with discussions and comments of polar opposites. Indeed this is the crux of Human Problem wrongly attributed to vicissitudes of human history which is made in agony and distress by progenitors but studied in comfort by progeny to acquire possible qualifications for earning a livelihood. I would like to interpret the disjunction as commented by dj lane between what N.D.J intended to express and what he achieved in doing so as the “Dichotomy” of human nature in relation to the common aspect of human mind rather than any intended consideration itself. The state of a nation is composed of different serving organizations just as the different organs of defined purpose constituting the human body which unitedly serve the human individual. Although we can consider the different body parts as democratically instituted in their individual functions of working, their combined effort is to serve faithfully the human personality through life. But the subtle mind- intellect-intelligence management takes the rational services of physical organs for granted as a matter of fact of reality and never comes to grip of self consideration in state of perfect harmony of health unless diseased due inner or external causes. Is there any scope of consideration between myth and reality in the maintenance of natural human economy? If a drop of honey is really tasted sweetly by the tongue the daily toils of hundreds of honeybees contributing to that drop is the reality of their effort for its sweetness but may appear as a myth to insensible lips of mouth. The human mind which is transcendental in the nature of working is embedded into a rational and clearly definable functional physical human body which in itself is a dichotomy of natural creation. We may surmise many myths and realities in the course of human existence with relativistic considerations of experiences but can never solve the dichotomy with such superficial efforts in this ever changing world between aspiring modernity and discarded obsolescence unless we make a genuine effort to solve the discrepancy for realizing the Never Changing Reality with a study and guidance of holy scriptures. We have to fundamentally accept the fact that Democracy is harmoniously inherent in Nature’s creation instituting a basic conduct of all life including human beings but not as a prerogative of human existence in a transactional manner of self defined advantages. The mind which has surmised a myth may also confound reality adjudged by self related experiences and with a bias for self serving advantages and interests in a contemptuous manner towards the democratic rights of coexistence with fellow human beings polluting all living environment and destroying the harmony of natural creation.