Progress For Us: The Historical Context Behind Modern American Political Ideology

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  

The aforementioned quote is attributed to George Santayana, an America philosopher whose work became well-read shortly after the turn of the 20th century.  It comes from the first volume of his The Life of Reason, composed between 1905 and 1906 and is included in a section on the idea of progress.  In that particular section, Santayana states that progress depends on relativeness; in that in order to gauge whether or not society has advanced one must first have knowledge of where society has previously been.  This perspective then allows one to set a direction for positive change by knowing where one is coming from in anticipation of reaching where one has not yet been.  Without this sense of relativeness, this use of experience to dictate where one is headed, Santayana argues that it will lead to a "perpetual infancy" where progress ceases to be made.  

Progress makes the world go 'round.  It is what separates human beings from all over living creatures.  While every other creature focuses on basic survival instincts such as food, water, and shelter, human beings have evolved to the point where our basic instincts have been met and we, as a species, must decide what the next step is in our evolutionary trek.  This has been the fundamental question facing mankind since the last ice age:  Now that our basic needs have been met, what do we do now?  

It was that question that has led to the progress the world has seen over the past ten-thousand years.  The agricultural revolution saw hunter-gathers begin to establish roots in one single area, establishing early villages centered near bodies of water.  The invention of the wheel and the domestication of animals allowed people to move and interact with other villages, thereby sharing goods, services, and most importantly ideas.  These ideas would be brought back to these villages and would impact every aspect of everyday life from hunting and fishing techniques, to new cooking techniques, to new ideas about medicine, to the birth and subsequent spread of religion, and even to discussion about rulers and political systems.  Once the seed was planted, people at the time realized that it would be up to them to determine what was best for themselves, their families, and their communities.  

They did so in a number of ways.  Early on, it was essentially trial and error.  However, once ideas began to be exchanged it then became more discussion-based using logic and reason. Some of history's greatest philosophers actually learned from each other as ancient Greece saw Socrates teach Plato and Plato, in turn, teach Aristotle.  These philosophers and their discussions centered on ideas central to their society at the time including the very power structure that should be in place as was the central topic of Plato's Republic.  Combine these teachings with the popularity of oral histories being passed down from people like Homer and what you saw in ancient Greece was an educated populace and the first in modern-history that actively participated in electing its non-religiously appointed political leaders.

Ancient Rome saw what Greece did and continued to improve upon it with their version of a republic.  However once Rome fell, other kingdoms and empires began to wonder if having the citizenry become actively involved in the political process was the correct course of action. That concern became paramount after the bubonic plague when Europe needed strong rulers. This period in history gave birth to the idea of the absolute ruler, one who was ordained by God to rule over his people.  At this time, England, France, and Russia among others would all have monarchs who claimed the throne in the name of God.  It made for powerful propaganda as well; to go against the monarch was to go against God. 

However, these absolute rulers eventually would become greedy.  They would marry and inbreed as a way to unite kingdoms and keep a royal bloodline.  They gave their friends and acquaintances all the cushy jobs in the kingdoms.  They demanded high taxes for protection and would exile or imprison those who spoke ill of them.  They would hoard the best food and drink for their lavish palaces and castles all while the poor, wretched serfs were forced to work in the land in a system that would precede slavery in the New World.  While all this was going on, the lower social classes, although strong in number but weak in political power, were being pushed to the extreme.  

And when that happens, we reach a boiling point.  It started with the American Revolution, which consisted of some upstart British colonists who were upset about not having a say in how their colonies were governed.  It spread to the French Revolution, the first time in world history that a monarchy was replaced by a republic and eventually ideas born from this event would spread to topple monarchies throughout Europe.  We then reached the modern nation-state, a model that has essentially been in place since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.  Since George Santayana we have had two World Wars and countless coup d'etats, genocides, political assassinations, rigged elections, and acts of discrimination against minority populations all in the name of trying to create a stable environment for humankind.

In other words, have we progressed or are we simply repeating history?  

Nowhere is that question more prevalent than the United States of America in the year 2015. As we stand just over eleven months from a monumental presidential election as the lone superpower in the world, we begin to see a distinct difference of philosophy when it comes to the idea of progress in this country.  Of the two major political parties, one has established itself as the party of progress while the other claims itself to be the party of traditional values. This newest iteration of progress versus the status quo is nothing new and has been a competing theme throughout world history.  No matter what country you analyze with a two-party system an what time period you study, there is always one party in support of progress and one party in support of more traditional values.  

And throughout history, the party of progress has won.

It has not been an easy fight.  The status quo likes to stay in power because it's so much easier being in control.  You can put into place policies that benefit you.  You can put your people into your government and can have give government contracts to those you choose.  You can restrict voting for those who may not vote for you.  You can limit power of minority groups and even the opposite sex by convincing them that they are actually enemies rather than victims of a system designed to keep them from attaining success.  You can control access to the media and tell people exactly what they want to hear regardless of veracity.  You can claim publicly that the people love you and behind closed doors you can berate them for not being fully on board with your cause.  

Does all this sound familiar?   

If so, then it should.  Like the great losing sides of history, today's Republican Party is dying a slow, painful death.  What we're hearing is the death rattle; a loud, obnoxious, high-pitched squeal  led by people named Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Bush.  They've had a good run over the past 35 years when they convinced us that wealth would "trickle down" to the rest of us.  They convinced us that unlimited money in politics wouldn't be a bad thing and that Saddam Hussein was hoarding weapons of mass destruction.  They even convinced us that the transformational man in the White House wasn't worthy of having both branches of government represented by his own political party to enact his "liberal agenda" so he ended up losing his House in 2010 and his Senate in 2014.  They did all that, all while essentially telling the rest of us non-rich, Christian, White males to eat our cake.

However, there comes a historical point where cake gets thrown back into someone's face. 

That time is rapidly approaching the Republican Party.  There's only so many ways to spin your failed policies of the past.  You can only ignore climate change for so long, especially when all the world's leaders are gathered in Paris to discuss it at this very instant.  You can only deny marriage equality for so long, especially when young generations are accepting and embracing it.  You can only badmouth the Affordable Care Act for so long, especially it has cut the uninsured rate in this country nearly by half.  And you can only deny racial inequality and injustice so long, especially when Rosa Parks gave up her seat 60 years ago today and not one of your presidential candidates have acknowledged her historical importance on social media.  

Progress moves forward.  It isn't always pretty as we've seen but it has created a better world. Progress in more efficient government.  Progress in more efficient transportation.  Progress in more efficient communication.  Progress in clean energy technology.  Progress in medical technology and research.  Progress in access to higher education for those from underserved and underrepresented communities.  Progress in the use of diplomacy and economic sanctions to avoid international confrontations.  Progress is recognizing the mistakes of the past and doing everything in your power not to repeat them.  

Today's Democratic Party has an understanding of this history.  It's why President Obama went to bat for affordable health care.  It's why the party supports equal pay, marriage equality, gun control, access to women's health, action on climate change, raising the minimum wage, and policies that give those of lower socioeconomic status opportunities for success, all things that Republicans today refuse to support.  We don't have a monarchy in this country but what we do have is a Republican Party that would love nothing more than to instill its own system of fascism onto the rest of us.  Their extreme ideas have been festering at the service ever since Barack Obama was elected and now with Donald Trump's ascendancy, Republicans see no reason to hide the true vision of their country:  One where their polices would take us to a place of White, Christian majority rule where those that opposed them would be seen as pariahs in the eyes of the public.  This vision, if enacted, would set back the country a generation and would stall any progress that has been made over the past seven years.  

Republicans aren't stupid.  They know their history.  What they're banking on is that we, as Americans, don't know ours.  
 



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