We know about the separate powers of government, the legal underpinnings framed by the Constitution, and the guiding principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

But when it comes to civic life, who, or what, ultimately governs America?

Three public intellectuals took up the question in “What Rules America: Money, Morals or Myth?” a debate on Feb. 1 sponsored by the Center on Religion and Culture.

Moderated by E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post columnist, Georgetown professor, and author of Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right (Princeton University Press, 2008), the debate featured:

•    For money, Robert Kuttner, columnist for Businessweek, author of The Squandering of America(Knopf, 2007), and co-founder of The American Prospect magazine;
•    For morals, Robert A. George, editorial writer for the New York Post, one-time staffer for the Republican National Committee and U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, and regular commentator on political affairs programs; and
•    For myth, Susan Jacoby, author of Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age(Pantheon, 2011) and The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2008).

“What is the place of money in our civic life?” James P. McCartin, Ph.D., co-director of the center, asked in a crowded Pope Auditorium. “To what extent can we say that Americans are guided by a set of deep moral convictions? How do our national myths of equality and prosperity, as well as our self-understanding as the world’s savior, define our approach to political and social problems?”

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Robert Kuttner, Robert A. George, Susan Jacoby, and E.J. Dionne, Jr. Photo by Leo Sorel

Joking that he bribed Dionne to secure the first presentation slot, Kuttner argued that money reigns supreme in American civic life. He highlighted the January 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision, by which corporations, labor unions, and wealthy people can contribute unlimited funds to political campaigns.

Unlimited contributions, he said, leads to unlimited influence.

“Money disproportionately comes from rich people,” Kuttner said. “Your average citizen doesn’t give multimillion dollar contributions to campaigns, and that means that money speaks louder than ordinary citizens.”

Consequently, participation in civic life leans heavily in favor of the wealthy.

“Participatory inequality in politics is every bit as important as financial inequality, and participatory inequality correlates with financial inequality,” Kuttner said. “Voting percentage declines with income. Participation in associations of all kinds—political, social, and civic—declines with income. As income becomes more unequal so does political participation.

“This is important because the only possible counterweight to great concentrated wealth in democracy iscivic involvement,” he added. “So if civic involvement itself is a function of wealth, then you’ve got a double reinforcement, instead of a counter.”

In addition to dramatically curtailing political participation, commercialization and materialism imposes on every other aspect of the public domain.

“It isn’t just money and politics,” Kuttner said. “It is creeping commercial values everywhere you look. And all of this feeds on itself, because as financial elites become more powerful, they elect people to pass policies to make them even more powerful, and things get more deregulated, more privatized.”

Maybe so, George conceded as he took the stand to defend the place of morals. However, national morality—not Judeo-Christian values exclusively, but also the principles on which the nation was founded—impacts society as well.

“I think of a specific, overarching and unique American morality, and that is something from the founding document,” George said.

The Declaration of Independence in particular, George said, sets forth several maxims by which Americans check social and political life, including the dictums of equality and unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In addition, some of the most noteworthy movements in American history were morally motivated, George said. During the Civil Rights movement, leaders and individual members of poor churches rose up and forced social change.

Despite the tides of political and economic influence, George said, our unique American morality continues to ground the nation.

“That principle is still ultimately governing America, because even the wealthiest of individuals will not be able to buy an office if he or she doesn’t at least pay homage to these ideas of divinely inspired equality and respect to the inalienable rights.”

These very sentiments, though, have fed into our national mythology, Jacoby argued.

According to Jacoby, an emotional framework structures American civic life. The most prominent sentiments include the myth of meritocracy—that everyone who works hard enough can achieve success—and the myth of American exceptionalism—that America’s unique ideology of liberty, equality, and individualism renders it globally unparalleled.

“The myth of America as a pure meritocracy is to our politics as the myth of lifelong monogamous love is to marriage,” she proposed. “While we’re all aware in various degrees, depending on our circumstances, that these myths are not precise descriptions of reality, we all, in varying degrees, believe that there is some essential relationship between the myths and the success of what we’re trying to do.”

We may hope for their truth, but in fact, several recent studies have challenged these myths. The studies, Jacoby said, revealed that in America it is more difficult to rise to a higher economic class—or simply upward within the middle class—than it is in the rest of the developed world.

So while these myths have formed our national ideology, Jacoby said, deep down, our belief in them is becoming as shaky as their actual reality.

“All of the explicit talk about American exceptionalism that we’re hearing now is a testament to the deep anxiety of Americans that we have lost a lot of what we’ve always considered our specialty. When you really believe you’re the best, you’re not obliged to go around, puffing out your chest, and shouting ‘I’m No. 1!’”

Watch the debate in full on C-Span’s “Influences in American Politics.”

Read more about the Center on Religion and Culture on its website.