President Obama made a strong stab at outlining a progressive narrative last night that envisions a nation where “everybody plays by the same rules.” It’s a pretty simple idea, tapping the powerful American ideal of egalitarianism — that all of us should get a “fair shot” and that nobody is too high and mighty to not be held responsible for their actions.
Of course, the obstacles to realizing this vision are enormous, particularly when it comes to ensuring equal accountability before the law. The rich are able to get away with misdeeds because their wealth enables them to block or water down rules aimed at curbing such behavior and can also be used to hire armies of lawyers and lobbyists when the authorities do come after them.
The U.S. is not nearly as bad as, say, Russia in this regard, but we are far, far away from a society where everyone is held equally responsible for their actions. And, ironically, we have moved further from that ideal over the past two decades during the same period when many politicians have trumpeted “personal responsibility” at every turn. That concept, it turns out, has been mainly applied to poor people and especially African-Americans — not to rich people who actually have fewer excuses for being irresponsible. Indeed, many of the same conservative politicians who have been most obsessed with “personal responsibility” have helped to make it easier for the rich and corporations to do whatever they please without fear of sanctions. Witness the rollback of rules governing Wall Street or the weakening of labor laws that protect workers from abusive employers or the hollowing out of the IRS’s enforcement capacity.
So it was nice, last night, to hear President Obama call for steps to ensure accountability for all.