US Politicians since Ronald Reagan have referred to the greatness of the modern self-styled Rome, i.e. the United States of America, as a “shining city upon a hill.” As is typical of political speech, it’s a glowing turn of phrase misused to mean something quite different from its original intent.
The original phrase comes from a sermon by John Winthrop, written in 1630. Winthrop was a Puritan minister, and the word “shining” does not appear in his sermon. His meaning was that the Puritan colonies in the US would be highly visible, and carefully watched by other Christian sects in Europe and the Colonies. “[T]his sermon called Puritans to model radical communal solidarity.” And indeed, the Puritans were quite successful at this. “[T]he commitment to a higher cause and the dedication to God had made the Puritan community unusually successful, and the success of their venture—the wealth it generated—had eventually undermined the venture itself. When Puritans started making money, their purposes collapsed.”
In other words, they started out as an idealistic communal hippy sect, and once it started to turn a nice profit, they degenerated into a pack of greedy bastards. It’s the age-old story.
See https://www.neh.gov/article/how-america-became-city-upon-hill if you are curious about this.
Reagan’s public revival of this expression, repeated by every President since, calls to mind the great cities and high towers that appear in works of fiction and lore: Tintagel where Arthur was conceived, Camelot where Arthur ruled, Minas Tirith where the last kings of Middle Earth reigned.
People forget something basic.
When you build a shining tower, it casts a shadow.
I read a story a long time ago, that went something like this:
Once upon a time there was a kingdom in which everyone was happy, healthy, and successful. A nobleman from a distant land arrived one day, and was astonished by the health and industry of the people. The King received him, and accompanied him around the kingdom, showing him wonder after wonder. They returned to the castle, and as they walked together, the traveler saw one dark door in a shadowed hallway, strangely out-of-place in this bright kingdom. He inquired about it. The King ignored him and moved quickly to the next wonder. Late that night, the traveler stole quietly from his room to the dark doorway, consumed by curiosity, and found it unlocked. A stone stairway lead downward from the door. He descended the staircase, and at the bottom, he found an old man, and a locked cell containing a small, naked figure of a child curled on the floor, covered in dark bruises.
“What is this place?” he asked the old man.
“This is the Heart of the Kingdom,” he replied.
“I don’t understand,” the traveler said.
“There is an enchantment on the land,” the old man said. “This is the price. You see the child within the cage? Every month, a child of less than ten years is selected by lottery from a family in the realm, and is brought to this place, to be stripped, beaten, and left to die of hunger and thirst in that cage. So long as this continues, the realm will prosper.”
The traveler, horrified, did not even return to his room for his possessions before fleeing the castle and the kingdom.
As I read about the chaos taking the Republican Party in the House right now, I keep coming back in my mind to the question of what drives the far-right Republican base. It’s a fringe, nut-case political ideology, yet it has substantial popular support. Why?
I think the answer lies, in part, within the parable above. I will explain with another story, this one a personal account.
The other night, I ordered take-out from a local Italian restaurant. I arrived early, and pulled into a parking spot in the storefront lot facing the restaurant to wait until the order was ready. At the outdoor table right in front of me was an older man in a khaki jacket. He didn’t like me being there; apparently, I had intruded on “his” space, which apparently extended into the parking lot. He started shouting at me, calling me a “white nigger” (he was also white), and a “son-of-a-bitch,” and making repeated reference to his military service; then he’d round back to the beginning and start over, getting angrier and more physically agitated every time as I continued to ignore him.
I eventually pulled out and moved the car to a spot further down the row, and he didn’t pursue. I called the restaurant to let them know this guy was out there, harassing customers. When I went in to pick up my order, the owner apologized to me. She said it was like this most nights: there was a homeless shelter nearby, and the crazies would come out and sit in front of the restaurant and shout at people. The police would do nothing, and there was no one else to call. They had to start closing the restaurant at 6:00 pm because of it.
The United States sacrifices its people without concern, some through military service in wars of geopolitical adventurism, some through unquestioning support of business downsizing and outsourcing in the name of “economic efficiency and profits,” and nearly all of us through a banking system that allows real inflation to outpace wages while juggling the numbers to make the argument that this just isn’t so.
All of us are racing upwards toward that “shining city on a hill,” but most of us will drop from exhaustion long before we get there.
As a nation, we shrug. Leaving the unfit behind is the sacrificed child, the Heart of the Kingdom. It’s the way we roll. Pick yourself up and try harder, soldier. If you can’t make it to the top, it’s your own damn fault. It’s not our business to offer you handouts. Pull your own weight. Reimagine yourself.
I believe what drives the far-right Republican voters is an awareness that they have already been abandoned as “unfit” to live in the shining city. They’ve lost the game. Many are retired and being devoured by rising prices. Many are young and did not inherit wealth to let them start somewhere above the bottom of the hill. Many did their best, but had their industry collapse, or their job eliminated, or a health or financial issue that buried them alive.
Of course, they can’t accept that they were unfit. There’s obviously been a mistake somewhere in the paperwork. They’ve been cheated. It was an immigrant that took their job. It was a government handout to a lazy person. It was discrimination against veterans, or against white people, or against their Christian religion, or against their maleness.
They are right that it wasn’t their fault, any more than it was the fault of the child chosen by lottery to be beaten and starved in a dungeon cage. It fell on them because their number came up in the lottery. They had to be fired so that Elon Musk’s financials would look better this month. It wasn’t personal.
So why do these folks turn to the Republican Party?
I think it’s really pretty simple, which it would have to be.
Donald Trump gave them a job.
When you are starving in the middle of a large city, unable to find work, and someone offers you a little pay and some respect for roughing up dead-beat borrowers, maybe breaking an arm or two, maybe making someone “disappear” — you take it. It’s food. It’s rent money. It’s new shoes. It’s dignity.
Donald Trump gave them legitimacy, because he was listening to their discontent. He had his own agenda, a criminal agenda, but he was listening, and that’s something no one — no one — on the Democratic side was doing.
Nor are the Democrats listening now.
I’m thinking of that guy outside the Italian restaurant the other night. What good will it do him to have lots of federal money dumped into “the economy” for dams or roads or solar energy plants? How long would he last on a road crew before he took a shovel to some “white nigger” he was working next to? What about a black worker? Is it even possible that he could ever “pull his weight” again after whatever trauma put him into this state? How could a capitalist justify the return-on-investment?
The basic problem with the Democrats is that, since Reagan, the Democratic Party has been the whole-hearted supporter of the capitalist Heart of the Kingdom, the very system that manages the kingdom’s dungeon and its ghastly lottery. They seem to believe that if they just feed the capitalists enough government money, the money will start to “trickle down” to the people they hire. They have a lot in common with some of the Republicans — their differences are … nuanced. They aren’t listening to those who have already fallen.
The rest of the Republicans, the far-right Republicans, are following Trump’s lead, and they are listening to the discontented, but for their own purposes. Like Trump, criminal purposes. Mad purposes, in some cases.
No one will like what they create if they ever take power again.
So what is the solution to this conundrum?
Well, I have a modest suggestion. We had a not-entirely-dissimilar situation in the late 1900’s, and what resolved it was “trust-busting.” I believe the modern terminology would be “nationalizing” certain industries, starting with industries that exhibit the “economics of second best.” These are industries that cannot be optimized, because — put very simply — profits compete directly against the value of what is produced.
The medical insurance industry is a good starting place. No other civilized nation rations medical care according to ability-to-pay. Hell, no other uncivilized nation (or tribe) rations medical care that way. Medical bills, or fear of medical bills and medical bankruptcy, touches every person, young and old. Medical insurance actuaries perform a valuable statistical function for planning costs, but all of the actuaries should be employees of the Federal Government, and all of the current profit-taking from the medical insurance industry should shut down entirely. They should all be “downsized.” Absorbed and regulated by law. And the top administrators? Suck it up, and “reimagine yourself.”
I’m pretty sure most physicians would be good with this. The current system isn’t working for them, either, because the insurance industry is draining a huge amount of money out of the profession, both by profit-taking, but also by rationing care, putting pressure on clinics to get rid of services and doctors, and overloading the rest.
I’m picking the medical industry as a low-hanging fruit, as it is probably one of the most unethical and dysfunctional applications of capitalism that it is possible to imagine. If someone has a better example, I’d love to hear it.
But the goal is to go back to John Winthrop’s original idea: that we are a “city on a hill” that others are watching, and we must stand for something better than swagger and bad manners and naked greed.