How did we get so far from the albeit naïve but nonetheless noble vision of the America that President Obama offered on his election night in 2008, that we are not just "a collection of red states and blue states" but "the United States of America"?
One reason, suggests Robert W. McChesney, author and University of Illinois professor, is that the political processes that could be used to bring Americans together have been hijacked to an extent that is almost unprecedented in American history. And thus we find ourselves at a point where ordinary people will have to take extraordinary measures to reclaim the democracy they rightly own.
That is the theme that McChesney, along with Nation magazine writer John Nichols explores in his latest book, "Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America."
The book offers a lot to ponder as we commemorate America's struggle for independence.
"John Nichols and I argue in the book is that there is a great crisis in the United States today," he said in an interview. "It is a recurring one but it is really explicit today, that we have a governing system in this country that is largely dominated and controlled by corporations and very wealthy interests. such that no matter who is elected at this point there's a very narrow range of debate on fundamental foreign policy and economic issues."
This has left us with a system that is "rife with corruption" and "not very functional," but it is serving the short-term interests of the wealthiest Americans and corporations, who are enjoying dramatic increases in their wealth at the expense of a sinking working class.
"This is the great tension of our times," said McChesney. "How are we going to resolve this? Are we going to lift the governing system and the political economy so that it serves the needs of the great bulk of the population or are we going to contribute on the path that is set up for the needs of the few, and the many will have to be dealt with so they don't get in the way?"
The hijacking of democracy by the dollarocracy contains within it the seeds of its eventual destruction, McChesney notes, because the plutocracy cannot profit forever off an economic base whose foundations are crumbling. "It ends at some point in crisis, and we see that all around the world in similar situations, like in Egypt and Brazil and Turkey. And it can happen here, too," he said.
The question is what will it take for ordinary people to take control of how this all ends and shape the era that follows.
McChesney says it pays to remember that American history is steeped in conflict between the few who have economic resources and power and those who hold fast to the notion of shared prosperity and mutual accountability. And from that struggle has come the great successful progressive movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
But because, in McChesney's view, "we're in a deeper stage of crisis and corruption and crisis today than we were even in those periods" of progressive upheaval, citizens need to muster at least the same level of activism and civil disobedience that was seen during the labor strikes of the 1930s or the protect movements of the 1960s.
"There are five core rights protected in the First Amendment. One of those is the right to assemble. And the reason the right to assemble is there is that nothing is more frightening to people in power than looking out the window and seeing a half million people in protest. And nonviolently is even more frightening than violently. Violently, they can go in and beat heads and they can win, because they have more guns. Nonviolence unites the bulk of the population; that's why it's the most frightening thing."
Of course, he adds, activists should continue such work as organize people to vote, but at a time when corporate-backed politicians, unleashed by the Supreme Court, are now putting in place measures designed to suppress specific segments of the popular vote, "we should go out on Election Day and raise hell."
The good news, he said, is that "there are so many hopeful signs" that we can rescue the democracy from the forces of obstruction and economic regression. The 2011 grassroots uprising in Madison, Wis., against Gov. Scott Walker is one. The recent stand in Texas against extremist legislation restricting a woman's right to choose is another.
"There is a sleeping giant in this country of people who care about this country, especially young people who are facing the most grim future in at least 80 years, [and who believe] that there is something fundamentally wrong with this country and that it has to change," McChesney said. "That is what we have to build on and harness that energy for progressive social change, not let it dissipate."