The Framers of the U.S. Constitution had a justifiable fear of the concentration of power in their new republic, with results that we all learn in the fifth grade: separation of powers on the national government level, an independent judiciary, a delegation of powers to semi-sovereign state governments, a Bill of Rights, and a Constitution that’s hard to change. Thus it’s hard to gain total political control of the USA—hard, but not impossible.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because the heated rhetoric of this political season suggests that we are at least potentially moving toward a situation so polarized, based on views of what’s good for the nation so divergent, that it’s worth taking a moment to consider what might happen if the extremes we’ve heard so much from recently actually took control of the nation. We tend to be lulled by the existence of a stable center, a mass of voters who decide national elections, one reason why the extreme views of primary candidates typically get squishy in the general election campaign. Still, it’s possible for a powerful minority to impose its views on the majority. Slave owners did for a long time, and prohibitionists famously did in 1919. You could also argue that civil rights was an imposed minority view in many areas of the country.
When I say total control I mean control of the White House, a two-thirds + majority in the House and the Senate, and control of thirty-eight states, both state-house and legislatures. I haven’t done the math, but that can’t be much above five thousand people. If you have that, you can change the Constitution and remake the country any way you like. Five thousand people out of three hundred million is not an impossible burden. Assuming we take extremists at their word, what might America look like after a total triumph for the Tea Party/religious right or the Occupy/social democratic left?
The right as currently conceived stands above all for two things: unleashing business and the imposition of a set of values in public life. Liberty is the slogan, but in practical terms this means liberty restricted to the owners of capital and guns and those who share a set of values derived from the American brand of Protestant Christianity. It’s long been pointed out that these two bases of the right are in conflict, but there is no reason why politics could not work these out. At a minimum under such a regime we could expect to see:
- constitutional amendments prohibiting abortion and same-sex marriage
- the repeal of the 17th Amendment providing for direct popular election of senators and of the 16th Amendment authorizing income taxes
- a modification of the 14th Amendment eliminating automatic citizenship for people born of illegal immigrants
- modification of the 1st Amendment to allow school prayer and public support for religious schools and (perhaps) a statement that the US is a Christian nation; and further, perhaps, to control pornography and make it easier to sue for libel
- clarification of the 2nd amendment, to make clear it applies to the individual right to own guns
- clarification of the 5th Amendment to recognize all regulation as a taking that must be compensated
- reduction of federal power to the status quo ante 1890: little power to regulate; no anti-trust laws; no social or health programs; privatization of federal property; self-regulation the rule for industry; the effective end of unions; a national sales tax to support a federal government that would consist mainly of the military, the courts, the police power, the prisons, the state department, and a few odds and ends
- mass expulsion of illegal immigrants and restrictions on the franchise so as to make it more difficult for poor people to cast votes
What would America be like under such a regime? Well, in a sense we’ve already seen what it was like, because the world of 100 years ago remains accessible via historical records. We also have examples of contemporary nations where extreme individualism and feral capitalism have been given free rein. We should expect, therefore, an increase in poverty, suffering from poverty, and crime. We should expect a health system divided into three tiers—superb services for the well-off, mediocre, cost-rationed services for the majority, and charnel houses for the poor to die in. We should expect to see even vaster differences between the life styles of the top ten per cent and the rest. The national government being rendered impotent, we should expect to see the states become more significant and this means, if 1890 is the model, the complete dominance of corporations and their leaders over the business of the states. Externalities will not be controlled, and we should expect to see an increase in product-based poisonings, industrial injury and industrial disasters. Recovery from natural disasters would be increasingly the responsibility of private efforts and of charity. Privatization will generally increase, as the business-controlled government sells off the profitable parts of the public investment and leaves the remainder to rot.
The upside of this would be an increase in the opportunity to become rich for those capable and lucky enough. A substantial portion of the population would regard it a paradisiacal situation. Desperate people with no safety net would be willing to work under any conditions and for any pay on offer. Manufacturing, free of unions and environmental and occupational controls, might therefore revive, in the Chinese style. It will be increasingly easy to find servants, and many more people will be able to afford them. White person servitude will have a renaissance. Criminal justice/prisons will increase as a share of GDP and will be entirely privatized. There is no reason why the greatly increased number of prisoners should not be rented out for the agricultural, industrial and service tasks that the expelled immigrants once did, and many will be happy to see black people slaving in the fields again in chains.
In finance, we should expect to see the historic cycles of boom, bubble and bust continue and grow more violent, in the absence of financial regulation. Monopolies will flourish, but so will competition from gray and black markets. Again, some people will get very rich. Looting of natural resources and pollution will increase, and the public fisc will serve even more as a piggy bank for the new oligarchy.
Education will be largely privatized and its function as a vetting system for the elite will be enhanced. Outside the elite, schools will become even more like jails and will function essentially as holding pens for populations destined for actual prisons. A small number of students will be rescued and made into elite stars to justify the neglect of the vast majority, who in any case are not needed for industry or agriculture anymore, except (see above) as prison labor. It will be found, in general, more efficient to continue to export our manufacturing to, and import the required intelligentsia from, South and East Asia, rather than suffer the irritation of an educated population of Americans. The resulting passive and ill-educated population will be kept docile by drugs and sports of ever-increasing violence, and encouraged to die early.
In public morals we should see a new era of hypocrisy. A sort of American ulema will drive deviance underground and out of sight. Some of the recent advances in feminism and civil rights may be rolled back, perhaps not directly but as a result of the other changes mentioned. The availability of porn will decrease, but the availability of prostitution will increase, and become cheaper. Orphanages will come back as will the red-light districts. Sodomy laws may be revived and gay people pushed back into the closet. Contraception and sex education will be harder to get in many states and venereal diseases and illegal abortion will increase, so that the actual abortion rate may end up higher than it is now, as in, for example, Bolivia, which has very severe legal barriers to abortion.
In summary, we should expect the country to resemble a gigantic Guatemala, with a somewhat more populous overclass living an extremely pleasant life, quite insulated from the rest of the American people whose lives would resemble those of the so-called Third World even more than they do now. But the society will probably be more exciting, violent, and colorful than the one of today, and many people will thrive in such an environment.
Here too, we have examples of what life is presently like in the country that America could become in the event of a total triumph of the left: that is, northern Europe, Canada or Australia. The Constitutional changes here would be less extensive but might include:
- a modification of the 1st Amendment to prohibit the use of the public airwaves for political advertising
- A Constitutional commitment to full employment
- A reinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment to clarify either that it really meant the militia and nothing else; or, that it meant the right to bear only the kind of arms available when the amendment was passed—black powder, single-shot weapons and swords
- a clarification that controls on the externalities of production are not takings; and a strengthening of the commerce clause to allow easier regulation
- the abolition of the electoral college; restrictions on state efforts to restrict the franchise
Beyond that we would see free single-payer universal health care and free education continued through university, plus serious vocational education programs, with an associated commitment to service on the part of the young people thus aided. Most doctors would be salaried, and working in non-profit comprehensive health centers. Tax rates would return to Eisenhower-era levels. The capital gains exemption would be severely restricted and inheritance taxes raised. The government would take a somewhat larger percentage of GNP; incomes would gradually become more equal. Regulation of the economy would be much stricter, in banking and finance, in safety, in the environment. There would be massive infrastructure investments in schools, clean energy, rapid transit and high-speed rail. Banking and finance would become dull again and not the destination of the brightest and most ambitious.
The social status of teachers would be raised to levels observed in Scandinavia and Singapore. They would be recruited from the top quintile rather than from the bottom one, as we do now. The poorest students might be educated in the sort of environment available now only to the wealthiest, but, of course, the poorest would not be nearly so poor to begin with.
This sort of society would be safer, cleaner, healthier, more productive and better-educated than the one we have now, but it would also be far more regulated and offer less individual opportunity to grow rich. Religion would have less influence on the public sphere—abortion would be not only legal but free, contraceptives would be supplied to high school students and sex education would begin in middle school. Abortion rates would fall, as, for example, they have in the Netherlands and Belgium. Crime, especially violent domestic crime, would drop. Guns would be far more controlled.
In summary, we should expect the country to resemble a gigantic Finland, with almost all people living a secure and pleasant life, with incomes tending toward equality, a great deal of leisure, and excellent public facilities, but with relatively restricted opportunities to make a killing and achieve vast wealth. Social mobility may be decreased in both directions. Growth as usually measured will slow. There may be less radical innovation, but also less volatility: a peaceful if somewhat dull society.