I was raised a conservative in the segregated Savannah of the 1950s. I have subsequently, through much thought and life experience, become a progressive by conviction. I see too many injustices in our society to think that it shouldn’t be changed. Extreme economic inequality dooms the majority of our country to stagnant or falling standards of living while a tiny minority lives high. Racial and ethnic prejudices and discrimination lock minorities to the bottom rung of the ladder. Persistent sexism blocks women from achieving what they could in a truly fair society. These are just the most prominent of the injustices I see.
Fundamentally, though, I am still conservative. I am deeply worried about the future of my country. If the concentration of wealth and income continues as it is, or gets even worse, I see no way we can preserve our democracy, for democracy is premised on the equality of every citizen. How can political equality be meaningful in the face of such brutal economic inequality?
Moreover, extreme inequality dooms most individuals to constricted horizons, limited possibilities for improving their lives. Most people just lack the resources to get ahead, while a privileged few just keep piling advantage upon advantage. Years ago in Venezuela, a wealthy businessman, contemplating the mass of the poor in the shantytowns overlooking the city, told me that these were useless people. Useless, that is, to him. That, I fear, is where we are headed.
While economic inequality has waxed and waned in our history, we were founded on racism toward native Americans and Africans. The whites who established our colonies and who extended our frontiers explicitly assumed the right to conquer, dominate and exploit both the indigenous population and the Africans imported as slaves. That racist assumption then extended to Latin Americans and Asians. We now grant those minorities constitutional equality, but the reality of widespread continuing racism is only too obvious in our contemporary political climate. Racism is thus a constant in our history, but I fear that if we fail to confront and defeat it, our future as a nation will be crippled. We can’t rise to be a great country on the backs of racial minorities.
The United States is by no means the worst oppressor of women in the contemporary world, but we can’t be satisfied with the assurance that we’re not as bad as those others. We still fall far short of recognizing women as fully equal to men. We can see that in how few women make it into the top ranks of major corporations or government office. We can see it in the presumption of male legislators and judges that they have a right to control women’s decisions about their own bodies. We can see it in the persistence of the gap between pay for men and women doing similar jobs. We can see it in the continuing disproportionate child care and housekeeping load that women carry, even when they are working full-time outside the home. Women have surely made much progress in recent decades, but we still have a long way to go. And as with the issue of race, we cannot be a great country while we hold back half of our population.
My hope for my country, my nation, is that it truly provides liberty and justice for all. That’s a conservative hope, but achieving it will require radical change.
John Peeler lives in Lewisburg.