Empires fall, and sadly so will ours. The Roman empire fell because it was broke, had an overextended army, a decaying culture of excess—and don’t forget the barbarians. But this American empire will be destroyed not by the barbarians at the gate, but rather from within by our own United States Congress.
A dangerous, terrorist-like tactical precedent is now being established, whereby a few people can hijack the entire U.S. economy and hold the country hostage until their ideological demands are met. These tactics are being used by a small group of extremist members of Congress to shut down our government and use the debt ceiling as a negotiating pawn for their demands. These tactics are built on misinformation and propaganda, and do not recognize U.S. law (Affordable Health Care Act) or rulings of our U.S. Supreme Court (that the ACA is constitutional). These tactics intentionally hurt innocent people. The endgame is not defined, because it is the showdown and winning at any cost that is the endgame. Cut the baby in half! Pyrrhic victories for all!
To be fair, the Congressional shoeshine is closed.
And so our rage continues to build, and our leaders tweet while Rome burns.
But what can we do? We can’t simply vote the problem away anymore. Our vote means less and less due to gerrymandered voting districts, the ongoing repeal of voting rights and increasing corporate influence on the election process. We can’t call our congressman because rational, moderate members of Congress who (allegedly) want to end the shutdown have no power or influence over their rogue colleagues.
The solution requires a new model of citizenry whereby the unbridled power of a tyrannical, extremist minority (regardless of left or right ideology) is normalized by a rational, informed, and engaged majority. Americans in the middle and working classes are no longer able to fight this battle, while citizens like me, in the top 2-10 percent of incomes, are disengaged.
As an economic constituency, the top 2-10 percent of income earners (approximately $140K - $380K per year) are a quiet group. We are in a sort of political no-man’s land, without the unbridled access to power of the very wealthy top 1 percent or the rage of the working and middle classes. We are striving and hopeful that we’ll someday get to the top, and as a result we are complacent.
But we have to reengage, because many of us who have reached this financial demographic have some understanding of the American “up from nothing” story. We have had experiences at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum and this informs our political views.
I never went to a fancy brunch as a kid. We grew up on fast food restaurants and a lot of Cheerios. I am from a working class family in Buffalo, New York. My dad was a social worker and an enlisted Vietnam combat veteran, and my mom was a waitress. After my dad returned from Vietnam there was a short period of time when our family (I have two little sisters) received food stamps, for which I am thankful. But, in no way did I ever consider my family “on welfare.” My sisters and I have worked since we were 14 years old, and we all paid for own college tuition. I went on to earn two graduate degrees, one from an Ivy League school (which I never dreamed I’d be able to do!) and have worked at companies including Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse.
It is this combination of personal experiences in the struggling working poor as well as glimpses into the world of the very privileged that creates a balance in our political views. This perspective includes the best elements from the liberal left and the conservative right: a belief in hard work and self-reliance, combined with empathy for others who are less fortunate.
It is this dialectic that is missing from the current operating environment in Congress.
I plan to be more engaged and look for ways to be part of a peaceful revolution that forces Congress to work together more effectively. I hope my fellow top percenters will take some action as well, whatever their political beliefs may be.
As for those extremist members of our Congress, let them eat brunch!
O'Connor is a management consultant in Washington, D.C. and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.