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American Progress

The thousands of immigrants who flocked to American shores heeding the Statue of Liberty’s famous call for “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (Lazarus) envisioned the Land of the Golden Mountain, the Land of the Free, a refuge to escape from oppression. America has always been known as a “by the people, for the people” haven for those who want to speak freely. But based on what America has become, would those pilgrims and refugees of the past still look to this country as a place to exercise their freedoms and make themselves heard? Has America grown to be everything that the founders expected? Though America has progressed towards the civil liberties that were upheld in the founding ideals of the country, the other founding ideal of a “people’s government” has stagnated.
Progress is correctly measured by observing advancements towards a set goal. America’s founding goal was not to become a morally perfect utopia, a technologically sophisticated land, or an economically prosperous country. Instead America has historically strived to become a society of liberty and representation. The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, specifically to escape the tyranny of the state-controlled Anglican Church in England; in fact, freedom of expression was so important to Americans that many states refused to ratify the Constitution without the addition of the Bill of Rights to safeguard civil liberties. However, America fought for independence not only because its people desired freedom of expression, but also because they believed that a government should “[derive] their just powers from the consent of the governed” (Declaration of Independence). The Founding Fathers did not plan to invent cars, dictate an especially prosperous economic system, or try to create a far-reaching educational system. They simply penned the Constitution to outline their idea of a near-perfect society. Therefore, technology’s advancements, though impressive, are an invalid means to measure progress of this country towards its ideal nation of representation in the government and free speech for the people.
America’s progress in achieving its “free speech” ideal is evident in the protection of civil liberties. To remediate the slavery that plagued the South since the founding of the country, America ratified the 14th Amendment; coupled with the 1965 Civil Rights Act, America extended protection of civil liberties to all citizens of American, including minorities (Teasley). Freedom of speech was also jeopardized when in 1989, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act that made it illegal to desecrate the American flag. One year later, Shawn Eichmann, Dave Blalock, and Scott Taylor were arrested for protesting this policy by defiantly burning the American flag on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The Supreme Court overturned Congress’ legislation by asserting that “the Government's interest cannot justify its infringement on First Amendment rights” (Bruce), effectively upholding freedom of speech in America. In similar court cases such as Stromberg v. California, Tinker v. Des Moines, and Memoirs v. Attorney General of Massachusetts, the Supreme Court also ruled to protect free speech and free press. Overall, America’s government has done a relatively effective job in defending the right to deviate, helping advance the American ideal of liberty for all.
While the government protects Americans’ civil liberties, it often fails to represent the American people, leaving the second aspect of the ideal American society to stagnate. There are currently 38 women, total, who have ever served in the United States Senate, in comparison to the 1,183 men (US Senate). Yet the 2000 Census indicated that women account for 50.9% of the total population. The number of American women in American government is disproportionately small, a symptom of a deeper disease: Americans are kept from being represented in their government by the already powerful. However, gender is not the only factor that cultivates this elitist government: upper-class affluence also keeps average Americans out of office. During the 2002 election year, 93.4% of the candidates for Congress who spent the most money on their campaign won their election (U.S. PIRG). The tendency for wealthier citizens to dominate the government means that the average American, the middle-class worker with a significantly lower income, is mostly unable to represent himself. Women and workers are both consistently pushed out of the American government by the already dominant men. With so many underrepresented in the United States government, the virtual representation that was loathed by Americans more than 200 years ago is unfortunately still eating away at the well-being of American society.
Because of this lack of representation, the government often fails to execute the people’s wishes. When Ronald Reagan admitted responsibility in the disastrous Iran-Contra affair, when unemployment rates grew to 7.8% under George H.W. Bush, and when Harry Truman involved the United States in the Korean War, most Americans felt that the presidents were incorrectly expressing the democracy’s opinion. Accordingly, each president’s ratings dropped after handling the event (Wall Street Journal). George W. Bush’s war in Iraq resulted in many deaths, including that of Army Sergeant Daniel Torres. Beatriz Salvidar, his aunt, stood in front of the White House with 370 other protestors for nearly five hours on September 26, 2007. To Bush, she issued this incensed challenge: “You are a coward…come meet us now.” She is not the only one who is infuriated by the loss a family member in a war that only 38% of Americans approve of—Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in the same war, went so far as to sit outside President Bush’s ranch in Texas demanding an explanation (Dvorak). Americans are clearly displeased by presidents’ actions. And it is not just the presidents they find unsatisfactory—a May 2008 Gallup Poll showed that enormous 76% of Americans disapproved of the job that Congress was doing, just shy of the record high of 78% in March of 1992. An overwhelming population of Americans clearly feel that their congressional representatives cannot speak or legislate for the American people—the very ailment that Americans denounced when they declared their independence.
While there seems to be solid evidence that representation of Americans has expanded, most of this progress is ineffective at giving direct representation in the government. Hilary Clinton shattered the female “glass ceiling” by not only being senator of New York, but also campaigning quite successfully for the Democratic nomination in 2008. This seems like a glaringly obvious example of female representation in the government. However, she was simply an extremely privileged, wealthy, Yale-graduate running to be president. The Clintons’ income in 2007 was $20.4 million—hardly the typical income for an average American woman, or any American, for that matter (CBS). In most situations, politicians who are said to be increasing representative diversity in the American government are simply citizens of a different nationality with all the characteristics of everyone else in the government. The average American who rebelled so fiercely against oppressive British rule is no closer to being represented by his or her government now than before.
America is not synonymous with progress, because while it progressed in its civil liberties areas, the country is unable to grant the typical American representation in the federal government. Barack Obama’s presidency is an embodiment of this type of uneven progress. If it had not been for the 14th Amendment guaranteeing him civil rights, he would not have been free to run for president. In that aspect, America has come a long way from treating African Americans like chattels to giving Obama the right to occupy the highest office in the land. However, he does not represent the average African American—the 2007 Census reported the average African American income to be $33,916, while the Obamas’ income in 2007 reached $4.2 million (Zeleny). Granted, his heritage relates him to the large minority of African Americans in America, but to be representative of African Americans, he must not only be African American but also have a similar education, mindset, and economic situation—and the wealthy, privileged, Harvard-educated man lacks these similarities. This situation is indicative of the state of progress in America: far along in civil rights, but stubbornly unmoving in representing the average American in the government. With so many citizens unable to break into the elitist ranks of the government, it may be time for Americans to consult to the Declaration of Independence: if the American government cannot represent them, “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”





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