In the churches that I grew up in, the news channels that I watched, and the textbooks from my formative school years, America was always presented as “the great experiment:” The first truly democratic country in the western world. Yeah, I know there was Athens, and that the structure of our electoral system is not fully democratic, but let’s not let history and facts get in the way of American exceptionalism here. What made America so great to the pastors, teachers, and news anchors that I grew up listening to was the “fact” that America’s democratic processes allowed everyone’s vote to count, and that the Constitution ensured that the person at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder had as much value as the person at the top. Better yet, because of American capitalism, if you worked really hard you could start at the bottom and then become one of the elites.

Of course, the culture and the political structure of early America only allowed white, Protestant men to work their way from the bottom to the top. We also know that the hardest working people in this country today are often on welfare and stuck in generational poverty. But like I said… damn it, let us not let facts and history get in the way of American exceptionalism.

This is, after all, the land of Freedom. The free market. And Democracy.

We love our freedom in America. Yet, as of 2016, there were 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States, an  incarceration rate of 698 people per 100,000. Total incarceration peaked in the US in 2008. In that year, the US had around 24.7% of the world’s 9.8 million prisoners, the most in the world! We are such a free country that imprisoning our citizens is a billion dollar industry.

We love our democracy in America, but the electoral system by which we choose the president gives small states more per capita voting power than larger states, according to Hans Hassell, assistant professor of politics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.[1] We brag about being a democracy but political minorities are silenced in the electoral process. We brag about being a representative republic, yet you can never vote again if the cops catch you with a little weed. And, let’s be honest, we don’t have government of the people and for the people, but government the needs and pleasures of the highest-bidding corporations.

Conservative Americans boast about how capitalism has brought about unprecedented wealth and upward mobility to the middle and lower classes. But with a little critical thought and a two second Google search you soon discover that people born in the 1980’s have a 45% chance of earning more than their parents. Which sounds good until you take into account that those born in the 1940’s had a 93% percent chance of earning more money than their parents.

What’s the difference?

Well, in the 1930’s Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Transformed the economic system by empowering unions, raising wages, and taxing the wealthy so in order to fund programs to provide both jobs and education to poorer Americans. In the 1980’s, Reagnomics and economic libertarianism took America back to its free-market principles, and those ideas and policies have been stifling on wages and opportunities for the poor ever since.

Everything that I, and so many other Americans were conditioned to celebrate as success, has been in reality a complete and utter failure. The poor and the working class continue to suffer. Black and Indigenous Americans, people of color, and members of minority religious and gender identity communities continue to suffer higher rates of incarceration, police-related deaths, and generational poverty. If you are poor, your needs are not taken into consideration as Congress draws up legislation. And despite the lip service being paid to Black Lives Matter by Democrats, if you are a minority of any sort, your needs are on the to-do list below the needs of whites, corporations, and lobbyists.

As Donald J. Trump continues to recover from his popularity drop at the beginning of the COVID-19 economic collapse, I think it is safe to say that whatever good there was in the fabric of American culture has been completely tainted. Everything that we believed made us great has only shown how bad we are. The delusion that America is the shining city on a hill has evaporated. Rather, America has shown itself in the past three years to be the ashes of the dreams of our Founding Fathers.

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[1] For the record, I am not a fan of completely abolishing the electoral college because I agree with its original purpose of ensuring that small states voices did not have their voices and concerns drowned out by larger states. However, I am in favor of altering the system so that liberal voters have a voice in conservative states and vice versa.

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Photo © Matthew Friedman