Reprinted from Alternet
It's no secret that America's middle class is in decline. But while we focus on how that decline started (and who is to blame), we often forget to consider what happens if our middle class is wiped out entirely.
If we don't work to restore the American middle class to the vibrant, robust segment of our nation it once was, we may soon witness the end of small-d democracy as we know it. As history and nature both show us, working for the collective good is essential to a functioning democracy, and the natural outcome of that work is a strong and vibrant middle class.
The most ancient form of democracy is found among virtually all indigenous peoples of the world. It's the way humans have lived for more than 150,000 years. There are no rich and no poor among most tribal people: everybody is "middle class." There is also little hierarchy. The concept of chief is one that Europeans brought with them to America, which in large part is what produced so much confusion in the 1600s and 1700s as most Native American tribes would never delegate absolute authority to any one person to sign a treaty. Instead decisions were made by consensus in these most ancient cauldrons of democracy.
The Founders of this nation, and the framers of our Constitution were heavily influenced and inspired by the democracy they saw all around them. Much of the U.S. Constitution is based on the Iroquois Confederacy: the five (later six) tribes who occupied territories from New England to the edge of the Midwest. It was a democracy with elected representatives, an upper and lower house, and a supreme court (made up entirely of women, who held final say in five of the six tribes).
As Benjamin Franklin noted to his contemporaries at the Constitutional Convention: "It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies."
The framers modeled the oldest democracies, and the oldest forms of the middle class, and thus helped create the truly widespread and strong first middle class in the history of modern civilization. That first American middle class was a far cry from the 1950s stereotype that is often referenced in discussions of the ideal middle-income lifestyle.
During our nation's early history, "middle class" was much closer to what we consider today as "working class," and it was only open to the white, male population. But that early middle class was still a distinct and separate segment of the population from the ruling elites who held great fortunes or the servant class who were considered nothing more than property. For the first time in modern history, that middle group of individuals had a voice and power, and they helped shape our young democracy.
Back in Europe, however, the sort of democracy the framers were borrowing and inventing, and even the existence of a middle class itself, was considered unnatural. For most of the 7,000 years of recorded human history, all the way back to the Gilgamesh Epic, the oldest written story, what we call a middle class is virtually unheard of--as was democracy. Throughout most of the history of what we call civilization, an unrestrained economy and the idea of hierarchical social organization has always produced a small ruling elite and a large number of nearly impoverished workers.
Up until the founding of America, the middle class was considered unnatural by many political philosophers. Thomas Hobbes wrote in his 1651 magnum opus Leviathan that the world was better off with the rule of the few over the many, even if that meant that the many were impoverished. Without a strong and iron-fisted ruler, Hobbes wrote, there would be "no place for industry...no arts, no letters, no society." Because Hobbes believed that ordinary people couldn't govern themselves, he believed that most people would be happy to exchange personal freedom and economic opportunity for the ability to live in safety and security. For the working class to have both freedom and security, Hobbes suggested, was impossible.
As John Quincy Adams argued before the Supreme Court in 1841 on behalf of freeing rebelling slaves in the Amistad case, he stood before and pointed to a copy of the Declaration of Independence:
"That DECLARATION says that every man is 'endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights,' and that 'among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'....I will not here discuss the right or the rights of slavery, but I say that the doctrine of Hobbes, that War is the natural state of man, has for ages been exploded, as equally disclaimed and rejected by the philosopher and the Christian. That it is utterly incompatible with any theory of human rights, and especially with the rights which the Declaration of Independence proclaims as self-evident truths."
As he had so many times before, John Quincy Adams used his oral arguments in the Amistad case to insert the word "slavery" into a discussion. He believed so strongly in personal freedom and economic opportunity for all that he went back to Congress for another eight years after his term as president just to help overturn the so-called "Gag Rule" which automatically "tabled," or postponed any anti-slavery legislation without it ever even being heard.
While it would be years before that law was overturned and decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, John Quincy Adams recognized that our strength as a nation came from our democracy, and that the strength of our democracy came from individual freedom and opportunity.
In a letter to James Loyd in October of 1822, he wrote, "Individual liberty is individual power, and as the power of a community is a mass compounded of individual powers, the nation which enjoys the most freedom must necessarily be in proportion to its numbers the most powerful nation."