Behold, the Wretched Refuse of Our Teeming Shores
The political maps of the United States, c. 1860 and 2008, are nearly identical with one glaring exception: The states won by Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, and those won by Barack Obama, a Democrat, are virtually the same. This transformation is more than geographical: It means that today’s Republican party has rejected Abraham Lincoln and the principles that he stood for, while the Democratic party has embraced Lincoln’s words, his vision, and his humanity. It is a division that stands in stark contrast to Lincoln’s central theme at Gettysburg:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced… —that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln believed that Jefferson’s vision was the right one for this country. He knew that Jefferson had correctly identified our core values with these words: We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Lincoln’s vision was that of an inclusive United States, one that was truly united by these principles. It was rejected in 1860 by most of the South. Today both Lincoln and Jefferson are scoffed by the very wealthy and by their conservative surrogates from Texas to Wisconsin, and from New York to California.
Today’s Republican party is working diligently for America’s wealthiest citizens to disenfranchise blacks, Hispanics, the young, the poor and anyone else who looks to the Democratic party for the fulfillment of the American vision. In at least 15 states Republican Governors and legislatures are making it very difficult for these groups to fulfill their most important right of citizenship—the right to vote. They are also gerrymandering voting districts, breaking up unions, dismantling collective bargaining, taking over entire communities, firing their elected officials, abandoning contracts, selling off assets, and reneging on pensions. They view health care as a privilege of wealth, and higher education as something the country can do as well without. All these actions are focused toward two ends: First, they are directed toward limiting voting among Democrats, and second, they want the poor to pay for more and more tax cuts for the rich. Republicans ignore the fact that we have already become the most glaringly unequal country among all the industrialized nations on earth. This same inequality has made us number one in world rankings in murder rates, imprisonment rates, in obesity rates, in teen pregnancies, in illiteracy rates, in mental health issues, in drug usage, in violence, and in lack of trust and social mobility. Who among our founding fathers would have guessed that we would become the richest country in the world and simultaneously one-half our population would have no wealth at all? Or that one-half our workforce would toil for $15,000 per year? As our inequality gap has become wider, Republicans are now focusing on making it worse with new cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and in pensions among federal workers.
They believe that budget deficits are the “great evil,” while denying that defense spending, trade deficits, and tax cuts are the major factors behind the same budget deficits. They choose to believe that tax cut recipients are the “job creators,” while conveniently ignoring that 70 percent of GDP and 70 percent of jobs come from consumer spending by everyone. They have joined together to block every effort in Congress to stimulate the economy, so that a recovered economy can produce the jobs that would remove the unemployed from the welfare rolls. Last year they took us to the brink of a default on our debt obligations over federal funding of Planned Parenthood, a tiny program that directs 96 percent of its funding to helping women with myriad issues other than abortions. Their total actions and inactions continue to make economic matters worse, thus they are “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs,” all the while laying the blame on Democrats.
It is little wonder that a profile of the conservative personality is dominated by “closed-mindedness.” This is a propensity to be unreceptive to new ideas. It is the mark of someone who believes he/she has already found the “truth,” thus has no need for new ideas. He is easily persuaded to do the bidding of his authority figures. At last count 275 members of Congress had taken a pledge to never raise taxes. This pledge is arguably a violation of their oath of office, a violation of the Constitution, and a pledge of subservience to Grover Norquist, the head of “Americans for Tax Reform,” a right wing political group.
Are these the waning days of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in America? Are we doomed to repeat the experience of Europe during the Dark Ages when vassals worked for the glory of barons, and kings, and the Church? When upwards of 5 million humans were falsely tried, stripped of their wealth, tortured and imprisoned, and put to agonizing deaths during a reign of terror that lasted for 700 years? Wasn't the industrial revolution also the start of a period of enlightenment when men would live by reason; when freedom included the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Or, have we returned to the age of greed, and rule by the few, with squalor for the many?
The answers lie in whether we have the resolve to prevail, in the depth of our understanding of our own history, and in what it means to fight for something larger than ourselves. Another patriot once reminded us that “Now is the time that tries men’s souls.” Have we forgotten? It was also just a short time ago when Emma Lazarus put pen to paper, and lifted our spirits to heaven while proclaiming to the world:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Politics has never attracted the best and the brightest from among us. We have been too busy being the achievers—the scientists, teachers, engineers, artists, carpenters, police, lawyers, butchers, bakers, and candle stick makers. It is time that we all got involved, as distasteful as politics in America has become. We need to change the players who make the laws, the ideologues who have joined together to become puppets for the richest among us. It is time to “Take back America,” to listen once again to the words of Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Paine, and Emma Lazarus. This is our country. We cannot be dominated and controlled of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich—or we will all surely perish from this earth.