The ‘isms’ that define U.S. history

Americans enjoy debates. The first debate of consequence was whether the thirteen colonies, after the Revolutionary War, should come together as a whole or remain divided into 13 separate nations. The “ism” under debate was federalism, defined as a system based on democratic rules and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between national and state governments. 

The matter was ultimately settled by the creation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. However, “settled” endured only through a shaky 70 years whereupon the states of the union in the South decided to go their own way through a confederacy where human slavery, upon a victory of those states over the others, would continue. After the North won, the Constitution again ruled supreme.

Meanwhile, enhanced and practiced by the Industrial Revolution, mainly after the Civil War, capitalism took a firm hold on the way Americans got things done. Capitalism is an economic and political system in which a nation’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit rather than by the state. It worked well enough for a few American families with titular heads to take over exclusive control of business and industry while both white and dark-skinned folks fell into roles of servitude where men, women and children lived mostly in poverty. Thus, a few wealthy families lived like the royalty of old Europe.

With the appearance of change-agent leaders like President Theodore Roosevelt and the rise of labor unions in the U.S, there developed a great hue and cry among the American citizenry to bring control over those leaders of business and industry who practiced virtual monopolies in their respective areas and chose to keep all the riches for themselves. These developments led to financial relief for the American worker that endured, for argument’s sake, until some time in the 1980s when we began a reversal back to the gross inequalities of the 1880s that now disunite us. 

Overseas, for the most part in Europe, there were armed revolutions ending nations ruled for centuries by royal families. These revolutions were sped up during and after World War I. One political theory was led by a German, Karl Marx, and known as communism. It advocates class war leading to a society where all property is publicly owned and each person is paid according to ability and need. Socialism mainly sprung from the 1789 French Revolution. It is a political and economic theory where production, distribution and exchange of all things are owned and regulated by the community as a whole. Fascism has attracted some Americans. It’s a dictatorial form of government that rejects democracy, socialism and capitalism with one person in power.

An “ism” for current debate is humanitarianism, a belief in the value of human life where humans practice benevolent treatment of one another and provide assistance to others in order to establish humanity for the whole community. It involves a blending of the most viable “isms” and systematically excludes their worst features. When defined in specific terms to address today’s America, an appropriate humanitarian design could avoid revolution and provide the opportunity—under the stresses and strains of modern demands and challenges—or a U.S. future without another destructive and bloody civil war and serve to remedy the persistent divisiveness now causing so much unrest.

(Gene H. McIntyre shares his opinion frequently in the Keizertimes.)