Many of us no longer wait until we become overtaken by an illness to increase our prospects for a longer and healthier life because there is now sufficient knowledge to either prevent or treat it early enough. We are very complex organisms, and our numerous organs and cells work in great harmony in a healthy state. Consequently, significant emphasis is placed on staying healthy and preventing illness. Why not the same approach for our society? Shouldn’t we work preventatively to create a healthy society in the same way we do to keep ourselves healthy?

Isn’t our government created by us to serve the purpose of nurturing social and political interests? Shouldn’t we know and/or participate in determining what that should be? Can we be held accountable for what results when we determine there is prevalence of a disease in our society? Certainly we can become the healers because there are an infinite number of choices as to how we can organize ourselves and valid ways for us to determine if we are falling short of meeting expectations. But then, this requires understanding the “big picture” and the question of who benefits from certain choices.

One way I would suggest we start getting our thoughts in line with what the big picture is would be to consider what has become a major concern in the United States and among well-developed nations: increasing inequality. There is growing consensus that this has become a problem, and it had begun to emerge again in the 1970s – especially in the United States – and it is having a broad effect following the deep recession, starting in 2008. During the last presidential race, the Patriotic Millionaires emerged to promote higher taxes for the rich and reduce income inequality.
There is growing consensus that inequality is a big problem, and a solution is needed.

Much, then, has been elucidated in recent years about growing inequality jeopardizing the middle class – often considered as essential for the creation and maintenance of a democratic system. Members of the New York Times editorial board interviewed President Obama for an article (July 28, 2013) that quotes him as saying that the income gap is fraying the U.S. social fabric, and he refers specifically to the decline of the middle class.

Growing inequality is a fact; its effects are contentious. We need to consider how Americans form opinions and make decisions, bur first we need to elaborate further on income inequality and the middle class.

Let’s assume here that the working class is included in the middle class, or at least is perceived to be by elected officials. This class, albeit if you include working class, is quite a large one. Why is the lower class that includes most people in poverty being left out of the discussion? Haven’t they been affected, too, if not more severely by the great recession, slow recovery, and increasing inequality? Of course they have, but they evidently lack the power, influence, numbers, resources, and organization to have their policy needs and interests included. They are grossly underrepresented. However, it wasn’t always this way.

The 1960s was the decade of the War on Poverty. It was unabashedly intended to address poverty in the richest nation on earth, and it did succeed in reducing it measurably. However, the trend had started earlier and was an outgrowth of the New Deal that began in the 1930s and saw significant strides in reducing poverty and income inequality after WWII. Therefore, it is not necessarily characteristic of the United States to have always been indifferent to the poor and income inequality. Whether such circumstances can or will occur again is not the point here. Rather, it is a matter of whether the big picture must include all Americans and reducing income inequality based on having a healthy country. In today’s world to ignore tens of millions of Americans and stand by idly while inequality grows is not only unhealthy, it is suicidal.

There are two broadly identified U.S. streams of political and economic consciousness with considerable overlap and similarities that are, in my view, mainstream and articulated by the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties today. Discourse and activity occurring in the nation’s Capitol and manifested statewide across the nation also exemplifies these two streams. These streams have been in vogue for over eight decades, with various nuances, by the political parties that extol them. They, however, differ slightly when contrasted with the international range of perspectives on the proper role of government in well-developed democracies, which provide citizens with a much broader political and economic spectrum from left to right.

This much broader spectrum constitutes the really big picture: one that takes into consideration the great variety of democratic states in the world today and the extent to which what is really a democratic society has evolved to be in the 21st century. Although it may be very obvious to others, Americans are inclined to see the world through their own cultural lens, and this can pose great risks for them and the rest of the world in understanding what the really big picture is.

Being profoundly mindful of this and taking effective safeguards against it is highly challenging for Americans even when they employ a science-based approach when undertaking research, analysis, and drawing conclusions. They are then at considerable risk of being myopic, constrained, and reliant on one nation-state’s history and their own cultural evolution to guide even scholarly pursuits, which require utmost objectivity and self awareness of cultural conditioning and societal acceptance.

American political evolution, for example, emerged in the 18th century context – the time when ideas that were promulgated in the Federalists Papers and expounded upon by the Founding Fathers extolled and paid reverence to freedom from authority as the basis for achieving individual and societal well-being. To the colonists, “government” represented a monarchical authority, and it was authoritarian. The relationship between these authorities had to be completely severed, and any future government severally constrained. Placing limits on what the government could do was the best way to achieve independence, freedom, and pursue happiness.

Hence the less government, the better except to ensure domestic tranquility, defend against foreign threats, and ensure the rule of law in commerce. All of this could be best achieved through a republic that adhered to placing strict, constitutionally enshrined limits on either changing the originally approved fundamental document to restrict passing national legislation or by erecting separation of powers and checks and balances in perpetuity. Basic tenets of democratic governing like majority rule, one person, one vote that are considered inviolate characteristic requirements today for qualifying to be considered a democratic functioning nation were not integral to the establishment of the United States as an independent state in 1787. So, an emphasis on limiting government authority needs to be understood against the background of gaining independence form authoritarian governments in the 18th century.

Further, what constitutes democracy has evolved considerably since the birth of the United States. The evolution of democratic theory and practices results from the experiences of people with government over time to make it accountable to environmental changes and developments domestically and abroad. Great Britain may have been an authoritarian government or monarchical mother country at the time of the American Revolution, and somewhat interestingly remains a monarchy even today; however, in several respects Great Britain comes closer to providing a fuller embodiment of what qualifies as a democratic nation based on contemporary standards of what constitutes this type of government. This means that what constitutes democracy is not static but culturally evolves.

Canada, which never claimed its independence from Great Britain by means of revolutionary action – and further was spared from a horrid civil war – is also considered an advanced democratic system, having accomplished this without bloodshed. It has institutions and policies that evolved in a less tumultuous way and with the benefit of time and not an 18th century view of the proper role of the government, which characterizes the United States in the 21st century. And the present role of governmental debate in the United States carries on as if it were still the 18th century.

Democracy has emerged as a world-wide phenomenon – having gained broad international acceptance. This profound change does not mean it is practiced universally nor to what extent. Laying claim to being a democracy, or acting in accordance with democratic principles, is often iterated but when measured against agreed-upon criteria and standards, governments often fall short of meeting some if not all that are required to qualify. There is also the matter of degree to which the requirements are met and the ability to compare and contrast one nation with another by means of a host of international organizations, public and private, that rate the nations of the world on human development and participation in government.

The United States did not have to concern itself in 1787, when it ratified the Constitution, of how well it fared in establishing and preserving a democratic state or if it compared favorably with the rest of the world. There were no well-established models or cases to be studied and considered for adoption. Now there are tangible bases to do this – with inequality considered an obstacle to maintaining and achieving democracy, and with the United States having the greatest degree of any OECD nation.

Large scale democratic governance is new by evolutionary standards. The emergence of science and a scientific understanding of human nature was a necessary precondition. The lack of such knowledge explains aspects of the American governmental system that should be regarded as antiquated: How could a scientifically based form of government emerge in an 18th century when the former was in a nascent state? My contention is that it could not, and this helps to explain why our constitution places great hedges and blockades against consent by the governed, if one means by this universal franchise majority rule; providing for the general welfare of the people; universal high quality free public education; rule of law versus privilege; one person, one vote; no life time appointments; a highly informed electorate with access to public information – untarnished nor fettered by moneyed interests; and special access, for starters. [

The question of how to create an informed electorate was not given enough thought by the framers of the U.S Constitution. When and where is the theory and practice of democratic governance going to be practiced? Most social institutions that one encounters are authoritarian and do not exemplify democratic principles. Whatever assumptions were being made at the time about being highly informed and competent in civic engagement were largely ignored, and few in fact had the privilege of either running for office or voting. The subsequent emergence of free and universal public education did not occur until much later. Its purpose was basically to transmit cultural values and traditions and prepare children for a future means to become self sufficient.

But evolving a democratic state is much more complex and predicated on the assumption that our species – not a king, nobility, aristocratic elite, or plutocrats, but everyone – has the capacity, if not the potential, to govern. However, absent preparation for such a great responsibility, how can citizens be expected to perform, at least, in their best interests? When and where is the theory and practice of democracy going to start and be demonstrated and practiced? Will this be in the home, church, school, or place of employment and available to all regardless of personal circumstances? This is highly unlikely because most institutions in the United States are not democratically operated, but authoritarian or top-down with few exceptions. Consequently, when people reach the age of 18, they are generally eligible to vote, but whether they are even well prepared, motivated, or have any experience to draw on is another matter. There is no smooth transition except for the few who come from exceptional backgrounds and are generally from highly affluent families. This is one aspect of the impact of inequality that was neither considered nor anticipated as an issue when the United States was being forged. It remains an issue today that is not being addressed by the mainstream political parties that have in effect no present or foreseeable viable competition.

As part of the really big picture, we have to consider whether democracy is even a possibility without greater equality – or just a propagandizing indoctrination. We have all heard the expressions “Give me liberty or death,” as on the New Hampshire license plate; however, that is certainly not something that resonates from a U.S. history course. Nevertheless, liberty and freedom are touted as preeminent, while equality is viewed with apprehension by most Americans. Yet a considerable irony here is that liberty/freedom is actually a means to an end, whereas equality is an end in itself, and in my judgment, fundamental for creating and maintaining a democratic state. Freedom of speech, press, and assembly are essential in a democratic system to ensure that there is always an opportunity to change policy – based either on new information or maturation. But when some are more equal than others in power and usually wealthy, majority rule is castrated. Put differently, the greater the degree of inequality the less democracy.

Freedom does not have to be sacrificed at the altar of democracy. In most instances, it is highly compatible with it, but under some circumstances with growing inequality in the successful pursuit of wealth, both are compromised. But if democratic countries provide considerable freedom, are less likely to go to war with one another, have higher quality of life, and are healthier when inequality is limited, why jeopardize the entire planet?

The case of Norway exemplifies how a nation can evolve a democracy that is synchronized with scientific and technological evolution and human nature.

Americans are accustomed to comparing their nation to its mythological history rather than other nations in an objective manner. The narrative goes something like this: “The United States is the greatest democracy in the world. It is the leader of the free world. God is on our side. The best way to educate children starts in the home, and then there is a sharing of some responsibilities with local schools.” It is within this context and framework that learning of science, social sciences, ethics, humanities and the arts is introduced and tailored to local tastes in the 21st century.

Americans first struggled for their independence from the British as they pushed the natives almost to the point of extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Norwegians became independent from Sweden in the early part of the 20th century, and their conflict involved the workers and farmers versus the ruling class. What emerged from this struggle was a government that represented the workers and farmers that had the power to govern based on its desire to create a social democracy. Why limit government, as the Americans did? Why base an education system with public education designed on the local level – based on ideas in vogue there and variations in access and income? This was the 20th century, and knowledge, transportation, and technology had advanced almost exponentially since the 18th century in all aspects of human endeavor and understanding. A modern nation seeking to maximize human potential, quality of life, and equality needed a form of democratic government that people could trust and believe in for the long-term.

There was no lack of cases of governments laying claim to be democracies in the 20th century as there was in the 18th. The Norwegians had real options to consider, including creating something unique, but consistent with a faith in humans to govern themselves democratically. Therefore there had to be a unitary form of government, with a Storting or parliament, with people elected based on elections with equanimity throughout the nation. The majority could not be impeded from passing laws by a body within it that represented states or localities, court or presidential vetoes, parliamentary procedures, gerrymandering by a political party in control of state districting and electoral laws, private financing of public elections, the electoral college, and uneven at best preparation for civic participation and democratic engagement.

Norwegians then have devised a democracy that is largely consistent with our scientific knowledge of human nature. What I mean by this is that there is considerable evidence that the pessimistic view about human nature and government in the 18th century has been demonstrated to be at best overly so. We know much more about the conditions that result in failed states versus those that rank high in quality of life. We have the understanding and tools to address social, economic, health, and environmental problems that did not exist in the 18th century. When these are applied properly and fairly, we see a Norway. When these are applied inconsistently and unevenly, we have greater failure and disparity. However, trends can be observed and goals set and measured objectively to alter and reduce failure and disparity. Democracy offers a process to achieve this, but it also requires an updated view of what stronger and stronger democratic practices and institutions entail.

If we are to adapt in a globalizing world with what science can add, we need to share best practices as equitably as feasible. Like democracy, science is deemed of paramount global importance. All UN member states seek to achieve scientific and technological progress, which is often incorporated into the Millennium Goals and the United Nations Human Development Index. These goals and the UNHDI actually follow basic international tenets that were agreed to by most UN member states in 1948, when the UN Declaration of Human Rights was signed. This is an inspirational, unprecedented international document that was designed to reduce the prospects of any further world wars by extending rights to humans without regard to national origin, but simply because they were human and had a right to it.

The author welcomes your comments, questions, and dialogue:

Published On: June 9, 2012

Jerry Lieberman

Jerry Lieberman

Jerry is the co-founder and secretary/treasurer of the Evolution Institute. Prior to the establishment of EI as a non-profit in 2010, he served as president of the Humanists of Florida Association, which is affiliated with the American Humanist Association and was EI’s initial umbrella organization in 2008. Jerry presently serves on the boards of the Secular Student Alliance, Florida Consumer Action Network (FCAN) Foundation, and Project Now Inter-generational Outreach. The lattermost is a neighborhood-based organization in East Tampa, FL with one of the state’s lowest income populations. EI collaborates closely with Project Now – providing technical assistance and organizational capacity building.

Jerry concluded his formal education in 1973 when he was awarded his PhD from New York University. Prior to his retirement in 2002, he was founder and director of the Florida Community Partnership Center at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The center harnesses the massive human and technical resources within a large, comprehensive state university to improve the quality of life in impoverished neighborhoods in the Tampa Bay region. Before his retirement, he successfully created an endowment for his center, and it is now named the Jim Walter Partnership Center – as a result of a large donation from a family well known for affordable housing development.

Before Jerry moved to Florida in 1989, he was a professor of political science in New Jersey for 25 years at Essex County College in Newark and at William Paterson University in Wayne. While at the former institution, he founded the Urban Institute and served as a dean. Governors of the state appointed him to serve on several boards that impacted NJ higher education as well as its electoral process.

His background also includes extensive political campaign experience in the Democratic Party and experience as a professional consultant (including for the Meadowland Chamber of Commerce) and as a principal in an investment bank and import export company. In addition to teaching, research, and deep community engagement, he has been active in fundraising for organizations and political candidates that share his progressive values.

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