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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13 Responses to “The system is working fine”

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  2. mf_roe says:

    “Tragedy of the commons”

    The common good has always suffered because humans are evolved to to competitive. Our social structures for the most part reflect and amplify that competition. There have been groups and movements that advocated universal rewards and shared burdens but they haven’t produced a lot of success.

    They all amount to arrangements dependent on those most capable devoting themselves to supporting the most needy. Hey, I understand that sounds like a just system. The trouble is soon enough the most productive begin to resent paying a higher tax than those in subsidy. Once the resentment sets in the program starts to fail.

    The Framers were the Top of the Food Chain, they could have made themselves Royalty, the war was never so much against Kings as it was against an unfair King. Hamilton was most open in establishing a ruling class of selected individuals. But to their credit most followed Jefferson’s lead in crafting a system of privilege that was at least partly open to individuals with talent and drive, Franklin is the father of much of this concept, he was a self made man who rose to the top of society. To say that the Constitution is a fraud is wrong. But it was a severely compromised product of men with the prejudices of their time and their station.

    Indict the Framers and you must convict all that have come after and failed to set our system straight.

  3. Indigo says:

    Hopefully, some future court will correct that error. As things stand, it doesn’t look likely but neither did integration 75 years ago and even 25 years ago, same sex marriage seemed like a day dream. I hate that it takes so long to turn this clumsy ship of state around but then again, it took the Vatican 400 years to turn around after condemning Galileo. Our government is growing that sluggish.

  4. Don Chandler says:

    Why is it so hard to harness the power of the people…? Maybe the answer is in the context of Socialism:

    So Socialism needs a simple catch phrase. Say, “every drone used to kill other people is money not used for repairing the nation’s infrastructure.” Or every person shot by the police takes money from the people and gives it to the hospital trauma unit, insurance companies, law firms, mortuaries and the perpetuation of the bullet industry [gun industry.] It’s money spent in the ‘negative’ of socialism. Of course, we already have the simple and adequate expression: “Make Bread, not Bombs [not Bullets.]” It’s the perfect expression because when you don’t have to buy bullets and drones, you can spend it in more desirable industries like roadway construction and better farming methodology or really good health care. Basically, every bullet or drone used is a form of corruption under socialism. And a good Socialist nation understands this economics. So, socialism is a reallocation of resources from oppressive police systems and military industrial complex and prison industry and money moved to sustainable foods and real health care and jobs that focus on what the people want. Instead of so much money put into making guns, we have money to spend on education and effective mass transportation and better foods. Basically, Socialism ==> less corruption. And corruption in the Socialist context is money used toward destructive ends rather than constructive ends. The other cool expressions that mesh with Socialism are “Visualize World Peace.” Or “Think Locally, not globally.” These were great expressions that never got utilized in the faux revolution of the 60’s and ’70’s but they pertain to our Today. So what is the problem?

    Unfortunately, America employs an awful lot of people in the ‘negative’ industries at odds with socialism. The truth is, it won’t change tomorrow because we made a mess yesterday. It takes time. But it needs to happen. So Canada’s new leader said he is stopping the bombing runs against Muslim extremists…that is a positive step. It can mean money spent at home in Canada for the good of people.

  5. BeccaM says:

    I’m afraid I disagree. Just as the Second Amendment never envisioned modern firearms, the creation of a permanent standing army, or the end of slavery and active hostilities between the European immigrants and the Indigenous Peoples of America, I don’t think the rest of the Constitution has the institutional means to deal with unfettered capitalism and the rise of corporations and corporate multi-nationals.

    The fact corporations have any ‘person-hood’ rights at all was due to a Supreme Court clerical error (although some contend it was deliberate). Now we have leaders of both parties pushing for trade agreements which will put national sovereignty at the feet of corporate interests.

  6. Ol' Hippy says:

    This system is working as originally set out, however some form of controls and regulation have got to be in place or average citizens will just be slaves to industry….oh yeah we are slaves to industry aka the US of military corporate industry. Everyone today is slaked to the US for about 50 thousand dollars if our debt is taken into consideration. Big business is running things as usual and the people have little say in the matter. Just look at the candidates for a prime example of utter silliness. We have two buffoons leading the GOP and HRC for the Dem’s. Business will win out.The only real question is do we the people want more war in the middle east or a brokered peace. A bit of anarchy is a good thing to keep the elites from totally ruining things(the environment) and endless wars the average Joe (or Jane), doesn’t want. The only way is to write your representatives and voice your objectives. This internet thing is the greatest thing for writing endless(with due respect), letters of your concerns.

  7. Bill_Perdue says:

    You’re right. The Revolutionary War was a war between an established imperialist power and a wannabe imperialist power. Democracy was never the goal of American merchants, landowners and smugglers.

    The way to break the rule of the rich begins with abandoning their parties, the Democrats and Republicans and building mass movements to compel change and to create a workers state.

  8. The_Fixer says:

    This is no surprise to those of us who have read and understand history, and have been paying attention.

    One of the seminal events in U.S. history, the Boston Tea Party, was not meant to be the protest that many assume it to be. It was all commercial in nature – a protest against the granting of an exclusive market, the colonies, at the time – to the British East India Tea Company. The Boston Tea Party has been cited, and fairly recently, by Republican politicians when they start prattling on about how they are being denied their rights, suggesting that they fight back in the “spirit of the Boston Tea Party.”

    We’ve forgotten that this country was indeed founded by wealthy, well-connected people who most often really represented wealthy people and commercial interests. It has taken collective bargaining, and sometimes riots in the streets for the majority to protect themselves from the opulent minority. The only reason why there is protection from the “tyranny of the majority” for minority classes in the Constitution is that the wealthy and well-connected are the minority. We don’t call them the 1% for nothing.

    If it’s true that the system is operating as intended, perhaps it needs to be broken, no?

  9. Doug105 says:


  10. Bill_Perdue says:

    “Political activist Russell Means, a founder of the American Indian Movement, says he and other members of Lakota tribes have renounced treaties and are withdrawing from the United States.

    “We are now a free country and independent of the United States of America,” Means said in a telephone interview. “This is all completely legal.”

    Means said a Lakota delegation on Monday delivered a statement of “unilateral withdrawal” from the United States to the U.S. State Department in Washington.”

  11. Bill_Perdue says:

    Capitalism and capitalist parties like the Democrats and Republicans cannot be reformed. Attempts to reform them or to ‘use’ them to get reforms of capitalism are absurd. They’re the enemy, not an avenue of change. The election of Trump, Sanders, Rubio or HRH HRC will mean more wars, more domination of the economy and politics buy the rich, more wars of aggression, more racism, more union busting, more austerity and a lower standard of living for working propel. roe

    Their basic reactionary approach and the fact that they’re unreformable are proven facts, not opinions.

  12. Hue-Man says:

    I would round out the discussion by mentioning that voting rights of Native Americans was not achieved until the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

    I mention it because the Canadian vote on Monday saw the election of 10 new Members of Parliament (of 338) who identify as Aboriginal, a new record. Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker enacted voting rights legislation effective July 1, 1960, to allow Canadian Aboriginals full voting rights. On the 50th anniversary, it wasn’t viewed as 100% positive.

    “Bill Erasmus, national chief of the Dene Nation in the Northwest Territories, told CBC News on Wednesday that he is cautious about applauding the anniversary.

    Erasmus said Diefenbaker went ahead with something that fundamentally affected the nation-to-nation basis of treaties with the Crown, and he did it without any meaningful consultation with First Nations people.

    “That’s what the whole exercise was about. It was to make us Canadians, and we never had a discussion about that,” Erasmus said.

    “So yes, I think people want to participate in Canadian society, but they need to participate on conditions that they entered into with the Crown. So that’s why my feelings are mixed on the question.””

    First Nations people exerting political influence through elections can only lead to higher awareness of their issues and progress in dealing with them.

  13. Indigo says:

    “You have nothing to loose but your chains.”

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