In a recent post titled "The Rule of Law and the Ruling Class in American History" I suggested that observing which parts of the American people could break laws with impunity and which parts were certain to be punished for doing so can shed light on the inner workings of American society during any particular period of her history. Men disregard the rule of law only when they have the power to do so. During the antebellum it was common for small, white agricultural communities to work well outside the legal bounds of the law. In contrast, today it the exorbiantly rich and well-connected that can break laws with impunity. This inequality before the law is strong evidence that America is host to a corrupt "ruling class."
Changing political regimes of this type is difficult. Michael Lotus (who blogs at ChicagoBoyz under the tag "Lexington Green") quotes Victorian historian Augustus Freeman to explain why:
And it is certainly plain that the man who gains by maintaining corruption is likely to make great habitual efforts to keep up a corrupt system, while the man who opposes it, who gains nothing by opposing it, but who gives up his time, his quiet, and his ordinary business, for the public good, is tempted at every moment to relax his efforts. This failure of continued energy is just what Demosthenes complains of in the Athenians of his day; and experience does seem to show that here is a weak side of democratic government. To keep up under a popular system an administration at once pure and vigorous, does call for constant efforts on the part of each citizen which it needs some self-sacrifice to make. The old saying that what is everybody’s business is nobody’s business becomes true as regards the sounder part of the community. But it follows next that what is everybody’s business becomes specially the business of those whose business one would least wish it to be. (emphasis added)Lexington Green then adds:
"Of course, we are faced with the exact same problem today, except it is now much worse because the corruption occurs at the national level, and frequently under color of law. It is indeed a perpetual “weakness of democratic government.
What concrete steps can we take to mitigate this weakness, especially under modern conditions?" This is an important question. How do you drive corruption and abuse out of a system that is "rigged" against you?
American history provides a precedent.
Using the rule of law as our metric we find another example in American history where one class of Americans clearly ruled another. The place was the American South; the period stretches from the end of Reconstruction until the beginning of the Civil Rights era. Here the dividing line was not wealth or political connections, but race. Black men were held to a different standard before the law than white men were. Black men had no say in selecting the men who governed them. White men could commit crimes with relative impunity if their victims were black.
The victories of the Civil Rights movement permanently changed this state of affairs. While racism and abuse persisted after the movement had run its course, it largely succeeded in obliterating the sort of institutionalized supremacy that allowed the white populace to control Southern blacks. African Americans of the Civil Rights era succeeded in changing a system that was rigged against them.
What lessons can we learn from their example?
In Revolt of the Elites Christopher Lasch explains some of the reasons why the movement was so successful:
"It was the strength of the civil rights movement, which can be understood as part of the populist tradition, that it consistently refused to claim a privileged moral position for the victims of oppression. Martin Luther King was liberal in his social gospel but a populist in his insistence that black people had to take responsibility for their lives and in his praise of the petty bourgeois virtues: hard work, sobriety, self improvement. If the civil rights movement was a triumph for democracy, it was because King's leadership transformed a degraded people into active, self-respecting citizens who achieved a new dignity in the course of defending their constitutional rights....
Those who feared or resented black people found themselves disarmed by the moral heroism, self discipline, and patriotism of the civil rights movement. Participants in the movement, by their willingness to go to jail when they broke the law, proved the depth of their loyalty to the country who's racial etiquette they refused to accept. The movement validated black people's claims to be better Americans than those who defended segregation as the American way. By demanding that the nation live up to its promise, they appealed to a common standard of justice and to a basic sense of decency that transcended racial lines." (emphasis added) Lasch highlights several lessons from the Civil Rights movement that can be applied to any modern day attempt to reform our corrupted political regime:
- To transform a system of corruption and injustice you must convince the "degraded" class that the responsibility to change the system rests with them and that they truly have the power to do so.
- These types of struggles are inherently a moral contest, and the usurpers cannot win if they cannot claim the moral high ground.
- When the system is rigged against you it is logical to work outside of it (the Civil Rights movement did not win any of their battles by way of the ballot box), but the movement will lose the moral high ground if it cannot prove its commitment to the institutions it seeks to reform (as Civil Rights activists did when they went to jail peacefully)
 T. Greer. "The Rule of Law and the Ruling Class in American History." The Scholar's Stage. 4 March 2013.