Posts Tagged Founding Fathers

John Adams and the Super PAC

John AdamsJohn Adams was right about a lot of things, but not everything. As much as we rely on the Founding Fathers to guide the development of American society, even 200-plus years after the fact, they couldn’t predict everything.

Adams in particular tried to dissect an issue that is very relevant to 21st century Americans: the relationship between money and political power. “Why do men affront heaven and earth to accumulate wealth, which will forever be useless to them?” Adams asked. “Because riches attract the attention, consideration, and congratulations of mankind,” he declared.

According to Adams, wealth was a means to an end, and that end was self-aggrandizement. People did not seek to accumulate material wealth just to be rich, because what they really sought was “the attention, consideration, and congratulations of mankind.” That, Adams argued, was the motivator of human ambition. “Ambition springs from the desire of esteem and from emulation, not from property,” he wrote.

If Adams could see the 2012 Republican primary, with its anonymous Super PACs and campaigns financed by obscure individual billionaires, he might have to change his position. The rich men (and women) of the 21st century are a new mutation of the ones Adams was talking about, or even the robber barons of the 19th century.

Today’s wealthy individuals do seem to think money is an end, not a means. Instead of seeking the approval of their fellow Americans, they shun publicity so they can accumulate more wealth without interruption. Recently, the names of significant campaign donors were released by the Super PACs, and most of them were unrecognizable. The campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are financed largely by individual billionaires; if Adams was correct, why aren’t they running for president?

In the past, individuals really did use their money to buy the attention of their countrymen. Cornelius Vanderbuilt built a ship for the U.S. Navy so he could get the title “Commodore.” Andrew Carnegie donated money to build the New York Public Library, and got himself a memorial in the form of a New York institution.

Today’s billionaires don’t seem interested in any of that. They may not be able to take their money to the hereafter, but all they want to do is get more of it. It’s not about the glory anymore; it really is all about the Benjamins. It is very rare for John Adams to underestimate humanity’s capacity for evil and selfishness, but this time America’s wealthy are acting in a way he could not predict.

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Tyranny of the majority

America, to use an oft-quoted phrase, is a melting pot of different cultures. Through a constant stream of immigrants, a unique culture has emerged from bits and pieces of others. Yet America has never had a problem with identity crisis: for most of the country’s existence, people have had a very clear idea of what is “American.” But who gets to decide what is (and isn’t) American?

Apparently, rednecks get most of the casting votes. On a commercial for a new discovery channel show, a stereotypical “good ‘ole boy” declares “if you love your country, you’re gonna have to love moonshine.” In their song “Red, White & Blue,” Lynyrd Skynyrd sing “if they don’t like it they can just get the hell out.”

If a Jewish deli owner went on television and said “if you love your country, you’re gonna have to love pastrami,” how would people react? They might say that one individual should not tell others that his regional subculture is more American than theirs. The same goes for illegal distillers and their white lightning.

Another important group are Christians. Around this time of the year, there are always a few arguments about whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” Most people act like rational human beings and see this for what it is: a non-issue. However, others take it very seriously; just look at the comments on this blog post about holiday political correctness. The Christmas warriors argue that, since the majority of Americans are Christian, everyone should have to say “Merry Christmas.”

The Founding Fathers feared a “tyranny of the majority,” the arbitrary use of democracy in ways to were harmful to the nation and the rights of minorities. By writing off certain things as “less American” than others, we bring ourselves dangerously close to a cultural tyranny of the majority. There’s room for everyone, and people who think they can decide what is and is not American need to remember that.

Regardless of who has the majority, everyone’s right to religious freedom and the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed by the Constitution. As far as that document is concerned, Manishevitz is just as American as moonshine.

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