Social trends in the United States are disturbing and confusing. Production and wealth are growing at the same time as inequality and poverty is rising. Communication technologies are more available and sophisticated as conversations between partisans and communities diminish. Our national leaders enshrine peace and goodwill as we continually fight wars both publicly and covertly. We love our neighbors but we kill each other at alarming rates. We sanctify freedoms but we are building a surveillance state and punishing whistleblowers and dissenters.
It is easier to identify these and other social, economic, and political trends than to explain them. There are, of course, many who try. Republicans blame Democrats and vice versa. Media critics point to Fox News, journalistic biases, or the oligopolies that own the means of communication. Pacifists denounce the military industrial complex, while realists worry about terrorism, immigrants, and enemy states, e.g., Iran, North Korea, and now Russia
No one has a definitive answer as to why the American polity is faltering. It is possible though to better understand our changing and complex society by having a conversation around four general questions:
How involved are US citizens in making decisions that affect their well‐being? Here we should discuss voting, elections, political parties, money and politics, the media, elections, lobbying, and participation.
Who or what rules the United States in the 21st century? There are many possibilities including the people, elected national and state executives and legislators, financial and business elites, private corporations, trade associations, and pressure groups.
How have the American people been affected by the policy decisions of the powerful (whoever they are)? Our discussion should include education, income, taxation, health, social welfare, military and defense spending, retirement, housing, children, poverty, and the physical environment.
Borrowing from Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Vladimir Lenin, “What is to be done?” The answer will depend on our answers to the first three questions. If we believe (and some of you may not) that government exists to advance and protect the well-being of the people, then the necessary reforms hinge on the gap between promise and performance. We should assess the significance and value of reformists like the Tea Party movement, Popular Resistance, community rights initiatives, city and state efforts like Minnesotan for a Fair Economy or Solidarity NYC, Evergreen Cooperatives (based on the Mondragon Cooperative movement in Basque Spain), the Fresno and Lummi Business Council efforts, Idle No More, worker owned enterprises, public ownership, and others.
I will submit a short essay every month that relate to these questions on involvement, power, living conditions, and reform, focused on the lives of real people and common experiences.
David Mass taught political science at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Bellingham, Washington.