State of the Planet

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Memorial Day, Patriotism, and the Search for American Political Consensus

Political polarization is a trap that is easy to fall into. While setting a national debt ceiling is apparently too dangerous to leave in the hands of Congress, I agree with President Biden, and I’m impressed with his skilled effort to forge a compromise to avoid default. I don’t like pieces of the bill, but I admire the president and speakers’ effort to forge a compromise. I’ve learned to look for and value consensus, although my political awareness was born in protest and civil disobedience. About half a century ago, when I was in high school in Brooklyn and later as a college student in Indiana, I was an anti-war activist helping to lead protests against the war in Vietnam. In my senior year of high school, I was the head of the James Madison High School Coalition to End the War. In Franklin, Indiana, I helped organize a candlelight procession to the Johnson County courthouse to silently protest the war. Later, some of my friends and neighbors who fought in the war came home, some damaged, and then dishonored for their service. Some never came home. I never changed my view of the war, but I certainly changed my view of the warriors. I came to understand that we shared the sense of duty inspired by John F. Kennedy to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

My sense of service led me to work in and around the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for about two decades, starting in 1977. It led me to direct public administration master’s programs at Columbia University since 1985. Theirs led them to risk life and limb in service to this nation. Their sense of duty and service was deeper and more profound than mine since they were prepared to give their life for this country, and I was not. Over time, I came to see and understand that. I was disappointed and disheartened by the way veterans were treated when they returned home from the war. Fortunately, in more recent decades, most Americans have learned to distinguish warriors from the wars they fought in. We routinely and correctly honor veterans for their service. I work at the Ivy League university that has the most veterans enrolled of any Ivy. I’ve enjoyed teaching veterans because, typically, they are hungry for knowledge, don’t take education for granted, and contribute their life lessons to my classes on public policy and management.

As a grandchild of Jewish immigrants, I can’t help but love the opportunity and protection America has offered my family. I see all the imperfections, including structural racism, extreme income inequality, and recurring antisemitism. And yet on Memorial Day, I stand on the corner of the street by my summer home in Long Beach, New York, applauding first responders, high school bands, and veterans of America’s wars. My feeling of love for this country runs deep. I don’t wear it on my sleeve and rarely talk about it, but I remember my grandparents talking about being chased out of Russia and Poland and the horrors that they left behind. Nobody traveled thousands of miles in the early twentieth century to sightsee. It was a perilous journey undertaken because the alternative was so much worse. I see the potential for those horrors to emerge in America due to the extreme forces unleashed by Donald Trump, trashing the Capitol on January 6, 2021. But then I see hundreds of these hooligans prosecuted and their leaders sentenced to years in jail. Perhaps Trump or DeSantis will find a way to pardon these folks, but I hope not. Despite the stress our system is under, I remain optimistic that the forces of good and unity in this country are stronger than the forces of hatred and division.

On Memorial Day, we remember those who gave their lives in service to this country. And we honor those who have served and risked their lives. We all have different views of America’s wars and of what it means to protect this country, but at a certain point, the leaders we have elected—despite our flawed representational system and presidential electoral college—decide we must fight. And these dedicated people answered that call. That sense of duty and service is worth recognizing and honoring, and so we do that. Today’s veterans do not face the mistrust and abuse that many Vietnam-era veterans faced.

My view is that we need to learn from the Vietnam-era experience of extreme political polarization and emotion and do today what we learned to do with our veterans. Honor their service, find common cause and shared values. Today, too many people see those who hold opposing political views as evil, flawed people. That’s how Vietnam vets were made to feel. That was wrong then, and it is wrong today. Even though I am a trained political scientist, I don’t look at the world through the lens of partisan politics. I look at my neighbors in Long Beach and when I compare them to my neighbors in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, I know their political views can be far apart. But I also know that many of their core values are very similar. They prize family, friendship, community, achievement, charity, kindness, self-reliance, and safety for their loved ones. Many are immigrants, children of immigrants, or like me, grandchildren of immigrants. My Long Beach neighbors demonstrate their patriotism and hang the American flag from their homes; many of the rest of us don’t wear flag pins but wear our patriotism in our hearts.

My professional field of expertise is in environmental policy and sustainability management. The current U.S. Supreme Court keeps throwing out EPA rules and narrowly interpreting America’s environmental laws. Their decisions are misguided, but the laws they are interpreting were designed for a different world. Those laws are nearly half a century old, and economic and technological development require they be updated. Despite the widespread consensus behind environmental protection, the paralysis in Washington makes it impossible to update those laws. That leaves them vulnerable to the narrow and short-sighted interpretation of an ideological Supreme Court. The consensus behind environmental protection makes it equally unlikely that any of those laws will ever be repealed by Congress. We see similar paralysis in American immigration policy. Most Americans understand the value of immigration, but the current process has created pain, injustice, and mass illegality. But just as immigration policy is outdated and failing, the monetization of disagreement and the pressure behind political polarization makes it difficult to build public policy on our shared values. We are seeing this with the debt crisis, but in the end, we also see that when our backs are to the wall, the forces of consensus manage to somehow defeat the forces of dysfunction. Thus far, we have managed to avoid self-destruction caused by our ideological extremes.

Just as we waved our flags this Memorial Day, perhaps we can all call forth that sense of patriotism that many of us come to when we are exposed to many of the alternatives to America. We recently saw that with the basketball star Brittney Griner standing instead of kneeling for the National Anthem. As reported by Jemele Hill in The Atlantic:

“Playing in her first real WNBA game in 579 days, Brittney Griner did something Friday night in Los Angeles that national television audiences hadn’t seen her do in a long time: The Phoenix Mercury center stood for the national anthem. She stopped doing so in 2020 but has resumed the practice after returning from 10 months of imprisonment in Russia. “One thing that’s good about this country is our right to protest,” Griner said after the game when I asked her about the issue. “You have a right to be able to speak out, question, to challenge, and do all these things. [After] what I went through, it just means a little bit more to me now. I was literally in a cage and could not stand the way I wanted to … and a lot of other situations. Just being able to hear my national anthem, see my flag, I definitely wanted to stand.”

Griner’s act was based on learned experience that thankfully few of us can fully understand, but it was easy to empathize with her desire to stand for the flag. The 2024 campaign for the presidency has begun, and it is unlikely to be characterized by a search for common ground. The last Presidential transition had none of the traditional elements of a peaceful transfer of power. The failed insurrection of January 6 was followed by then-President Trump’s graceless and petulant departure from our nation’s capital. As we approach the coming presidential election, Trump and his supporters are still contesting the last one. Trump is emotionally unable to accept defeat—it’s both scary and pathetic to watch him lie about the 2020 election. A quarter of this country supports his attack on our institutions and traditions. But most Americans are tired of it, and despite this dysfunction and disharmony, many still look for a sense of unity and for leadership that represents our common values and shared sense of community. I certainly am.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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