I am flummoxed by the rapid descent of American politics into incomprehensible absurdity. My instinct is to lash out against the words and antics of our president and his followers. However, while doing so might make me feel briefly better, it would accomplish nothing but the addition of more flammable vitriol to the already flaming fires of division.
Furthermore, fighting President Trump doesn’t change my focus from what I am against to what I am for. It keeps Trump’s vision and Trump’s idea of America at center stage.
His talking points need to be replaced by a common, positive vision of a progressive and equitable America.
So, I decided to refresh my understanding of the America I discovered during the three years I spent talking with fellow citizens, and with dozens of people spread across the globe.
The following thoughts were inspired by rereading the first chapter of my 2013 book, The Idea of America; Are the Principles Eroding or Enduring?
Imagine an America that fully lives into her founding principles. My idea of this America is a nation that embraces these words from the Declaration of Independence: It is a self-evident truth that all people are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The America I envision is a nation that upholds the intent of her founders as expressed in the Preamble to the Constitution: to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, promote general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.
My America is a democracy that depends on rational debate among reasonable people to either resolve differences, or to disagree gracefully as we search for common ground. In my America, politics is an honorable profession in which elected representatives seek consensus solutions to seemingly intractable problems, never forgetting that their duty is to the people and to uphold our foundational principles.
What are those principles? For me, America’s principles are clear: equality, justice, freedom, democracy, and commitment to the common good.
But, the America I live in today is not the country I envision. Our leaders have lost their way in a cacophony of garish words, rigid dogma and an unyielding unwillingness to seek common ground among competing ideas. Their allegiance is too often with those whose contributions fund campaigns rather than those whose votes put them in office.
This has led to a frustrated, dispirited, angry and cynical citizenry and to an increasingly skeptical international community. We are losing ground as leaders of the free world, and we are losing common ground among ourselves.
Hope for the Future
In spite of it all, I have hope that in this decade of the 21st century we will rebound and resolve our differences in such a way that my four grandchildren (born from 1998 to 2009) will inherit a nation that is just and is true to the principles of democracy.
The nation I want to bequeath to their generation is one that holds dear a commitment to providing first rate public education for all children (beginning in early childhood) regardless of their geography or their family’s wealth; making college or trade schools financially reachable for all people; guaranteeing equality of opportunity and a living wage in the workplace regardless of gender, ethnicity, physical ability or sexual preference; preserving and treading lightly upon the natural environment; creating a sustainable future that, in service of the common good, lifts up the most vulnerable among us by ensuring adequate housing, nutrition, shelter and health care for all.
On the international front, the nation I envision will stress collaboration over confrontation. Instead of proclaiming “America First”, we need to stand with our international sisters and brothers to protect human rights throughout the world. We must insist that our economic and political influence be used to combat the root causes of third-world conflict: inequality, poverty, and scarcity of both education and adequate health care.
Dare to Dream
Many will dismiss my vision as a grandiose, naïve pipe dream. And it will be just that if we continue to live as a nation of factions and competing interest groups. But the men and women who formed this nation nearly two and a half centuries ago had a similar grandiose, naïve pipe dream, and the ruling aristocracy dismissed them, too.
If those of us who dare to imagine a new way quit fighting about our individual agendas and instead work together to dream a common dream; if we together turn our passions from protesting what is to proposing what can be, a nation united around the idea of common good can emerge again.