I grew up with a different idea of what my country was about. That country was trying to do the right thing. That country was dedicated to being fair and even-handed, even as it made its mistakes. I am mourning that loss in the face of greed and thoughtlessness taking control. I believe in what really makes America “great,” and not what has been sold to an angry corner of the electorate.
How We Got Here
We were the “live and let live” society. We were the “mutts” of the world: all different colors and nationalities that somehow found a path together. Obviously it wasn’t perfect—nor truly by design—but that concept lit up the world with what it represented. It has become a national source of pride, that somehow more than 200 years ago, some strange blend of English Common Law and forward-thinking created a nation that embraced significant cultural differences between its members.
It was an accident of history. The New World enticed so many different people to its shores, that there were few alternatives. Either there would be a hundred different countries established on this new continent—a likely outcome with the attendant war and conflict—or somehow people would figure out a way to live together.
We opted for the second of these.
Since its founding, our nation has progressed to embrace more and more of its population into “personhood” and therefore citizenship: non-property owners, African Americans, Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians—and the trend has more or less continued along that path, with progress coming in fits and starts, and with varying degrees of success. Even the driving impetus for contemporary anti-abortionists has its roots in this ever-widening inquiry of who (or what) is considered a “person” under the Constitution.
The American Example
The recognition that it was possible to create a pluralistic democratic society that actually worked at all was the real “shot heard ’round the world.” It directly inspired the French Revolution and set the stage for the existence of other progressive democratic societies—from Japan, to the United Kingdom, the countries of Europe and countless others scattered among the continents. From a security standpoint, the goodwill generated by this uniquely American idea made us safer in the world. The inspiration of our example swiftly exported our thinking around the planet. That allowed America to have a unique political influence over the course of history and made the world safe for our citizens to travel—in a way that is the envy of the world even today.
The successful balance of human rights, representative democracy, separation of the executive from the judicial, freedom of thought, of religion, of the press, of political organization had—as its best proof—the American example.
We demonstrated a working model of freedom, multi-ethnicity and the rule of law that others could only dream of.
The American character grew and developed within this context of many different people from many different places having to cooperate with each other for a common good. It was a unique experiment. Fires are not put out, schools not built nor do businesses thrive in an environment of mutual distrust and hatred. These collective projects needed yet another essential ingredient to function: social lubrication between members of different tribes and ethnicities. We have been a country made up of different nationalities from the very beginning.
Thus, Americans developed a “live and let live” silent agreement that served to oil the wheels of community life—that later became associated with the American character itself. The development of this attitude was key to our ability to pull together under national emergencies and other common challenges. Over the years, it has been challenged, re-affirmed, forgotten and remembered, but its key function in our society has never been more important than it is now.
American society is structured for constant change. The democratic, free-market economic and multi-cultural social basis of the nation has always required a balancing act, with competing interests and shifts in opinion driving its evolution forward. That freedom is the legacy we were born into. It is the source of our strength and of our discontent. But the model was dependent on a leap of faith: that America’s economic and political trended toward greater prosperity and a “more perfect union.”
This worked beautifully during the 20th Century. But within the past 10 to 15 years, the challenges to business, political life, commerce and society have accelerated to such a degree, that many of our people have lost faith in the inherent strength of the American character. As a people, we have been so challenged with swift, technology-driven change, that we have lost faith that we can keep up with the economic, political, social and spiritual evolution that is required from this change.
Some of us feel like we are falling behind.
This point of view has validity. Rapid industrial change has drastically shifted resources, displaced workers, and upset the careful balance that gave us our optimistic view of an ever-increasing quality of life. While our vision of the future, the life for our children and the direction of the nation may have been artificially supported by our economic and military supremacy after the Second World War, our relationship to the rest of the world is changing and that change is a permanent one. The historical narrative that followed World War II is on life support.
As too often happens, there are those who have little compunction to misrepresent our current challenges as an essential weakness in the fiber of our national culture. They play upon our fears and the all-too-human tribalism that is at the base of our animalistic nature. The election of political leaders—like the current president—who are willing to disregard the truth, while misrepresenting a vision of America that is dark and foreboding strikes at the nation’s greatest strength—which has historically been our unity in the face of challenge. The “can-do” spirit of our nation is under active attack—from within.
But citizens have to be willing to buy into that vision in order to make it real. The response of the country—through free expression in the streets—to the recent downgrade in the quality of our political leadership has been striking, and will prove the stronger.
The fact remains that American society is better positioned for the future than any country in the world—provided that we stay true to our “better angels.” The strengths and advantages of a creative, dynamic and multi-cultural society is an enormous advantage that is unique to the American experiment. The ability to gather people around an idea, to finance it through trusted credit and partnership, to creatively communicate its implications to a dynamic economy, allows for America to be the master of change, and points to a positive outcome in the future.
Likewise, our political system works optimally, only when we engage in it. Recent headlines suggest that the American public is becoming aware that indeed elections do matter, and that our engagement is required to defend our national heritage.
The power of our national character should never be underestimated. It has served us through 200 plus years of our history. But it will require us to take the initiative beyond our comfort zones of checking out from the process. That comfort is proving what we have in our politics today. Let us take this opportunity to make the long-term changes we have all seen, for the good of our people and for the good of the country.
I’m game. How about you?