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The Consent of the Governed and the “Rich Man's Burden”

Economic imperialism calls for a revival of the Anti-Imperialist League.

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

In the late 19th century, a number of American businessmen and politicians (read: “robber barons”) expressed a desire to expand their Gilded Age dominance beyond the borders of these United States. However, in context of the growing Progressive Movement, they knew that they must disguise their selfish ambitions as “populism”, a sentiment revived and given breath during the 2016 presidential election.

A popular philosophy of this era was that of the “White Man's Burden”, a clever manipulation of the nativist, racist, and xenophobic attitudes that permeated the collective American psyche. Rudyard Kipling (author of The Jungle Book) wrote a poem of the same name in which he says:

“Take up the White Man’s burden—

Send forth the best ye breed—

Go send your sons to exile

To serve your captives' need

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild—

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child

Take up the White Man’s burden

In patience to abide

To veil the threat of terror

And check the show of pride;

By open speech and simple

An hundred times made plain

To seek another’s profit

And work another’s gain”

So dominance over a less civilized people (by western standards) was not only desirable but a necessary burden of white Europeans and Americans. However, it would be clear in very little time that there would be no tangible benefit for the common man, save access to exotic goods at decent prices. What was sure to be beneficial for only the very few who held a concentration of wealth was repackaged as a collective victory, a win for the common man who felt empowered by his newfound sense of supremacy.

Sound familiar?

As the McKinley administration sought to disrupt America's historic position of isolationism (see: Monroe Doctrine), the Trump administration is seeking to achieve the same destructive goals in the economic realm, except this time it is aiming to subjugate within our country. While the imperialism of days before sought dominance over indigenous people in lands far away, Trump's economic “populism” is a deconstruction of the federalist system that has sustained our country since the United States Constitution was implemented in 1789.

Between trade wars that are already damaging the agricultural economy of the American Midwest to tax policies that will explode the deficit and leave middle and lower class laborers holding the bag, the Trump administration has updated Rudyard Kipling's horrific notion of the “White Man's Burden” to the more modernized “Rich Man's Burden”; it is necessary for the ultra-wealthy to exercise their dominance over us less civilized folk, as they surely know how to run our lives better than we do. This, of course, has been true since the hustle and bustle of the Reagan-era "trickle down" economics. Turns out, the only thing that was ever supposed to trickle down to lower classes was scorn and fruitless pity.

Here's the great difference between then and now: in 2016, a number of Americans willingly elected to be governed in such an autocratic way. Those dominated by western powers in the late 19th century had no say in their subjugation. While losing the popular vote, the Trump campaign managed to eek out a victory through the electoral college that allowed this internal conquest to become the reality in which we now live.

Outspoken resistance to corrupt, domineering administrations is nothing new. Throughout the most shameful moments of our history, there have been subsets of Americans who vocally resisted destructive, nefarious leadership. In the era of 19th century American imperialism, a group of writers, politicians, and intellectuals who refused to endorse the trajectory of the nation forcefully spoke out against what they saw as an immoral foreign policy. The Anti-Imperialist League openly challenged the McKinley administration's imperious policies in their writings and speeches, calling the undemocratic philosophy of the era what it was: a wholesale denial of the rights enjoyed by the oppressor being extended to the oppressed. Among their ranks was author Mark Twain, who said of imperialist domination in the Philippines:

“I said to myself, here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves.

But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.”

A central theme throughout the history of democracies and the philosophy of the social contract is a simple four-word phrase: “consent of the governed.” The Anti-Imperialist League tapped into this philosophy of a basic human right to point out the hypocrisy of dictatorial foreign policy by democratic nations.

Extending this metaphor to the current administration becomes complicated when we consider that consent was effectively given in the 2016 presidential election. Although Donald Trump claimed that the electoral college was rigged to favor the Democratic party, and although he lost the popular election by roughly three million votes, the convoluted process of said electoral college did ensure victory for the reality TV star and gave him the political authority to implement such “Rich Man's Burden” economic policies.

While maintaining the ability to recolonize the American people by class, the Trump administration by no means has a mandate to do so. This is important to remember in the midterm elections, as American voters have the opportunity to communicate wholesale rejection and repudiation to these policies. While certain voter demographics may not be feeling the immediate pinch of these policies, they must understand that their fellow Americans are currently under undue economic stress and that a continuation down this route will surely rewind their wallets and wills to the financial hardships of the 2008 recession, or possibly worse.

The consent of the governed will be whatever the American people make of it in November 2018.

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