The idea that everyone is treated equally under the law always has been one of the bedrock principles of our country. 

While this notion historically has been more of an aspiration than a realization — because of the government’s repugnant history of racism toward African Americans and Native Americans (not to mention its discriminatory treatment of homosexuals and its past unequal treatment of women). The idea also has been seen as an important deterrent against the forces of tyranny and corruption. And the importance of this principle always has been embraced — although not always practiced — by both major parties in the American political system.

“Where, say some, is the King of America?” Thomas Paine asked in his famous 1776 pamphlet, “Common Sense.” His answer remains as prescient today as it was back then:

“Let crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America Law is King. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.”

The legitimacy of the American idea that everyone should be treated equally under the law — no matter what their race, gender or income — has been dealt a devastating blow by the elite immunity that has been bestowed on powerful figures in the government and the private sector during the past several decades. Whether it be the Reagan administration illegally arming a group guilty of brutal atrocities in Nicaragua in the 1980s — although this resistance group contained elements with legitimate grievances against the Sandinista government — or the outright criminality that occurred more recently on Wall Street, the elites have been shielded from prosecution no matter how egregious their acts of lawlessness.   

This brazen culture of elite immunity would be less craven if the rest of the population was treated with the same lax standards, but the exact opposite has been the case. While political officials guilty of torture and warrantless wiretapping get off scot-free and Wall Street executives and firms guilty of fraud escape jail time, poorer citizens and minorities are imprisoned at disproportionate rates. This selective use of the law is bound to spark outrage from citizens who are understandably upset about our two-tiered justice system.

The common reason given for not subjecting our country’s most powerful economic and political actors to the rules the rest of us must abide by is that, because of their immense influence, punishing these people — or firms and banks — would be bad for everyone. In other words, although this has become a tired cliché, these elite groups have been deemed “too big to fail,” thus too important to be subject to the same laws as the rest of the country. Aside from its moral shortcomings, the problem with this sort of logic is that once financial and political elites are basically told they are above the law, they are more likely to engage in even worst acts of lawlessness because they are no longer restrained by even the chance they might be held accountable for their actions. Of course, it should be noted that the government has slapped some banks with fines, but top officials still haven’t seen any jail time. 

The culture of impunity that, as Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian acutely points out, began when former U.S. President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for his multiple felonies in 1974, now is undermining a core precept that America was founded upon: equal treatment under the law.

This bedrock principle is and always will be the ultimate deterrent against the corrupting influence of power.

Andy Heintz is a political commentator. He previously was a Herald staff writer, now a sports reporter at the Ottumwa Courier, Ottumwa, Iowa. Read his blog at http://www.orble.com/just-one-mans-vision/