It is amplified at the top, by a weak and insecure President who bullies, seeks to humiliate and cares too much about the appearance of power while knowing too little about how American Presidents cultivate and exercise the authority brought by their office. Our President is both our head of government and our head of state- our prime minister and our king. Trump is a weak and ineffective head of government and an utter failure as our head of state. It is the complete absence of that unifying position of head of state that endangers America fundamentally today. America is not a flag, a wall, a building or even a place, but a vision, a mission, and finally a feeling about a way we should relate to each other in good times and bad.
Our awful head of state challenges us to rise above the policy disagreements of the moment and remember the vision of America. Martin Luther King quoting the 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker often said that: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That arc of justice led Thomas Jefferson to state that humans all “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” Jefferson’s Declaration left out women, African Americans, Native Americans and others, but I believe that Dr. King’s long arc of the moral universe is taking care of that.
Even the shameless man in the White House cannot stop the long arc of progress. No walls, tweets, or nervous nasty pronouncements can defeat that vision. The evil of ISIS, the authoritarianism of Putin, the horror of neo Nazis and the racism and xenophobia now in vogue will be defeated in our time as it was defeated in the too recent past. It will lose, because we are better than that. People the world over are better than that.
We should not and cannot ignore evil, but it is sometimes best to combat it by remembering who we are and what we are. Our society and culture struggles, but we are more honest in our interpersonal relations than we were in the past. That honesty has required us to be more tolerant of differences but more vigilant of the abuse of power. The Me Too movement is about the abuse of power in interpersonal relations. The Gay Rights movement is about learning to accept different definitions of sexuality and to not only be tolerant of those differences, but to learn to love and see the beauty in them. Feminism is about redefining the power relationship between men and woman, but it is also about rethinking the social definition we have given to gender. The civil rights movement is and has been about making some forms of racism illegal, but it is also about delegitimizing relating to people on the basis of race alone. All of this is to say that modern American culture and society continues the long and slow evolution that began when this nation began. Slow social progress is hard-wired into our culture and it is part of how we define ourselves.
The people who want a wall, or want to keep outsiders out have always been here. They made it impossible for FDR to offer sanctuary to Holocaust survivors and often made life miserable for many immigrants in many places. But more generous and tolerant people have also always been here. Americans often lend a helping hand. A half century ago they headed south to promote integration and got beaten up trying to register black voters. Neighbors help neighbors when times are tough. You see it after storms, you see it whenever there is danger. You see it as communities reach out to help federal workers during this long government shut down.
The two alternative universes of red America and blue America have far more in common than they seem to know. It is time to focus our attention beyond these differences and focus on the far greater areas of agreement. At the start of his national political career, Barack Obama urged us to see beyond red states and blue states, to a vision of the United States. While he had more success than he is given credit for in his service as a unifying head of state, the permanent business of partisan divide gave him very little chance to achieve his initial vision. From time to time he reminded us of our shared beliefs and culture, but too often his efforts were set aside in order to maintain the venom that so many seem to make their living off of these days.
This hatred in the air is a money-making business. From Fox to MSNBC, from the NRA to Moveon.org- I won’t cast blame here, and it’s obvious where my sympathies lie, but the dysfunction is the result of lots of money spent on propaganda and lobbying. And I am neither arguing for a new organization nor an ad campaign. I am offering something different. A reminder of our common values and the need to protect those values.
We may disagree about the definition of the right to bear arms, but we all believe in freedom of speech. We may have different forms of family values, but we all love and cherish our families. We may not think the welfare state is a good thing, but most of us will feed a hungry child if we find one in need. It’s a little like the scene at the end of a sporting event. People who were going at it intensely five minutes ago, hug each other and congratulate each other for the quality of the competition. We need to get back to that sense of civility. Chris Matthews wrote a great book about Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan’s political competition and close personal relationship. When Reagan was shot, his friend Tip went to the hospital to pray for him. Many of us have read about Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsberg’s close friendship and shared love of opera.
We need to work harder at discarding our political differences in the interest of discovering our common humanity. Those of us who have dealt with ailing parents have a sad but common frame of reference. Those with the blessings of healthy children and the challenges of children who are ill all share in the joy and burdens of nurturing the next generation. We share the pleasure of watching our children grow and have children of their own and we worry about the world our grandchildren will come of age in. It is time to resume the conversation about what we share and how we differ and remember how to listen and learn from each other.
You may like Donald Trump and think that he is a misunderstood man who is only trying to make America great again. You and I will disagree about that. But let’s get past Trump and think about what we have in common and what problems we both believe America needs to address. You may not worry about climate change and I may not be afraid of immigration, but I am sure we get stuck in the same traffic jams, breathe the same air, and drink the same water. Someday we might end up sharing the same hospital room and eat the same institutional food.
The air in America is filled with hatred, and it doesn’t need to be. I have a doctorate in political science, but that doesn’t mean I need to let politics define me. We need to put politics aside and take to heart America’s motto since 1782, “E pluribus unum” Which is Latin for “Out of many, one”. Many races, different religions and varied customs- but one nation.