The system is working fine

They’ll try and tell you it’s broken. Activists and politicians alike lament that institutions drawing their power from the consent of the governed have ceased to operate by, for, and of the people. From Forbes to Salon, from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, “the system is broken” is a lovely catchphrase everyone can get behind. It speaks to the fundamental political issue facing today’s America: a broad-based bipartisan disbelief in the government’s willingness or ability to act in the interests of the people. “The system is broken” can be cut-and-pasted into speeches about wealth inequality, racist police terror, regulatory laxity, and nearly every other problem politicians claim to have an answer to. Unfortunately for speechwriters everywhere, the slogan demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the American system’s purpose. The system isn’t broken; it’s working exactly as intended.

The system does not exist for the people. It never has. James Madison, one of the most prominent framers of the new republic, declared at the secretly-held constitutional convention of 1787 that the primary function of the American government was “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Madison’s comment was unlikely to receive criticism from the crowd surrounding him. As “well-educated men of means… dominant in their communities and states,” the framers of the Constitution were appallingly unrepresentative of the country they sought to govern. The vast majority of them were lawyers, and those who weren’t (along with many who were) had significant interests in commerce, finance, shipping, manufacturing, land speculation, plantation agriculture, and the slave trade — all pursuits inaccessible to the 99%.

Founders signing the Declaration of Independence, via Wikimedia Commons

Founders signing the Declaration of Independence, via Wikimedia Commons

In perhaps their most audacious feat of jingoistic deceit, this cabal of elites declared “all men are created equal” in a land where blacks were enslaved on the basis of their supposed inferiority, women and the poor were excluded from voting for fear the opulent may have their interests disturbed and Native Americans weren’t considered people in the first place. These founding inequalities have sustained themselves throughout the life of the nation. We watched black Americans escape slavery only to face overt discrimination in states during the Jim Crow era. Women weren’t granted voting rights until 1920 and were subsequently discriminated against nonetheless by overwhelmingly male-dominated structures of power. In both cases, disadvantaged groups were supposedly granted influence — through the franchise — over political bodies which preached equality to the public and practiced exclusivity amongst themselves.

It’s telling that these same battles are being fought today, albeit in different forms. Whereas blacks in the 20th century were excluded from voting through absurd “literacy tests,” — impossible for everyone (try it) yet only administered to blacks — African Americans today (as well as Latinos and young people) are disproportionately impacted by the recent spate of voter ID laws enacted by politically savvy and morally loose Republicans. Some have even declared the labor of Americans (disproportionately those of color) incarcerated in our nation’s many private prisons “perfectly legal slavery.” Women still face representation issues in the political arena, which provides insight into the recurring imposition of constraints on female autonomy by male politicians. Women have won the right — if you want to call it that — to enter the labor force (for lower wages than their male counterparts, naturally) but have had to fend off assaults against bodily sovereignty and safety that have been ignored or even perpetrated by our political system.

Civil rights victories throughout history have never served to solve discrimination but rather to subvert the forces fighting against it. Is it then a surprise that we can’t indict cops? Should we be surprised when Republicans lie on live TV about Planned Parenthood supposedly “selling” baby parts? How can we be shocked when blatant injustice is tolerated by a system which has appropriated and abused the notion of equality since its inception?

The only solution is to develop our own avenues for political action, thereby denying the state its potential to co-opt citizen power. We must emphasize individual autonomy through direct action on a small scale but widespread basis and promote equality by organizing along non-hierarchical lines built on respect for individual struggles and recognition of their intersectionalities. If we want to combat climate change, economic inequality, pervasive discrimination, rampant militarization, neoliberal imperialism or any of the nation’s other plagues, we’re going to need a hell of a lot more than a President who says the right things. We’re going to need power the state can’t subvert.

Look outside. Talk to your friends, your neighbors. No matter our backgrounds, we cannot deny the truths that lie before us. And the truth is we all agree. Nobody feels that the system works for them. Nobody has faith in their nation anymore. It’s why Donald Trump is doing so well; he’s reinvigorated people who feel like America isn’t living up to what it could be, and he’s saved them from their own cynicism. In their apathy was buried anger. In this anger there lies power. When we surrender our autonomy to politicians, even those who may seem honestly radical, we consent to the sustained tyranny of a political structure that can withstand any figurehead. It is only by harnessing this power on our own terms that we may break the endless chain of oppression that characterizes the American system.

Raghav Sharma is a writer, filmmaker, and political activist studying at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes on electoral and campaign finance issues, foreign policy, and economic affairs.

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