American Culture

July 4, 2018: What, if anything, can stave off the ruination of the Republic?

Only trust … assuming it can still be found.

In 2007, on this overblown, sadly commercialized holiday whose historical moment has been buried by beer, barbecue, patriotic bombast, and over-the-top, often taxpayer-paid fireworks, I wrote what 2011 might bring. I wasn’t hopeful. I predicted:

sign for fireworksNearly one out of every six Americans will still be without health insurance. Attempts at immigration reform (whatever that means) will still have been eroded by more objections by many more interests with particular beefs. No coherent, consistent, effective American policy that begins to undo climate change will exist. American school children will continue to lag far behind other nations in math and science — and still have decreasing abilities as critical thinkers. Spending by lobbyists to influence federal regulators and members of Congress will be on its way to passing $3 billion for 2011. …

The income disparity between the top 1 percent of Americans and the rest of us — the other 99 percent — will have widened. The continual tension between those who demand increased security and those who fear erosion of civil liberties and constitutional rights will continue unabated. The debates and difficulties involving voting fraud and reform will have been heightened by the 2008 election as election foes bicker endlessly in courts about outcomes. And, figuring a 10 percent increase per election cycle, the top 50 industries will be en route to shelling out $850 million to just members of Congress alone in political contributions for the 2012 election cycle.

In 2011, noting I’d missed a few things, I again took the Republic’s pulse:

package of fireworksI did not predict — or even dream it could happen — the outcome of the Supremes’ consideration of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that deepened the hole in which corporate money could hide while paying for “electioneering communications.” …

Sadly, I did not predict that more than 30,000 journalists would lose their jobs in the past four years, lessening the ability of the press to hold government accountable. To me, corporations are now essentially the American government; more journalists, not fewer, trained in the same accounting chicanery that allowed Enron to flourish, are necessary to hold corporate government accountable, too. …

About 42 states and the District of Columbia have faced $103 billion in shortfalls for the coming fiscal 2012. Minnesota has shut down for the second time in six years because its leaders cannot agree on how to close a $5 billion budget hole. They are stuck in the ideological version of children proclaiming, “He did it.” “No, he did it.” Sheesh.

In 2012, the consequences of ideological conflict became more starkly apparent to me:

packages of fireworksPolitical warfare by any name is still war. Call it what you will: The haves vs. the have-nots, class warfare, or ideological conflict — it’s still a cruel war, and it inflicts wounds on far too many of us. Some are deep: The bank took the house. Some are possibly fatal: The insurance company wouldn’t pay for the surgery. Or the drugs for that cancer. Some will fester for a lifetime: College students face a one-trillion-dollar student loan debt. Some are a perpetual itch that scratching does not relieve: There will be no pay raise next year, and your contribution to the company’s health plan will double. …

Forty people — all billionaires — may have more influence on legislative outcomes than the 312 million rest of us. If those billionaires dislike the direction political Party A or Party B is taking American life, they can engineer an electoral coup by underwriting massive negative campaigns. …

And goddamn it, don’t tell me to stand up and keep fighting the good fight. We’re outgunned (and out-dollared). The public’s ability to respond fully and freely — a dream of Bronze Age Internet days — is diminished by corporatism’s reliance on our willing donation of personal data on Facebook, Twitter, et al. We’re the product being sold. We are sheep. We are cattle. We are demographically useful to modern America only between the ages of 18 and 49. What we say doesn’t matter. What we spend does.

In 2016, my rantings rang repetitively as too many of the citizens of the Republic appeared to remain blind to these realities:

This annual ritual of patriotic devotion does little but confirm to too many the untested certainties of received wisdom they hold without question. Those — including, I’d argue, many if not most of the nation’s politicians — do little to escape the confirmation bias that blinds them to realities and possibilities. Too few question authority. Instead, they seek only to bolster their own power. …

I am a citizen in a nation in which compromise, trust, and willingness to negotiate have been replaced by political, religious, territorial, or jingoistic alliances that Nick Cohen, in his book Far Left , says have “little to offer beyond a rootless rage.”

I am a citizen in a nation in which those who would lead us gleefully and outrageously tell lies to secure advantage. They can do so in large measure because really rich people continue to pour money into their campaigns. Thus dishonesty has become a political staple because lying has no political or electoral consequence. …

I live in a nation in which the Democratic Party’s platform of 2012 (not 2016) called this the party’s “North Star”: Reclaiming the economic security of the middle class is the challenge we must overcome today. Well, how’s that working out? …

How exceptional is a nation that has been at war, or in permanent preparation for war, since the end of World War II — but has won nothing? Military preparedness rules Washington thinking. But it is costly and erodes support for other national needs. Thus what has happened to the middle class, the nation’s infrastructure, both public and private education at all levels, the outrageous cost and availability of health care, and the individual’s belief anything is possible for me is decidedly unexceptional.

These excerpts reflect nearly a decade of frustration and anger, watching what I argue are harmful influences on the nation continuing to worsen.

fireworks by Lincoln Memorial

A starburst by the Lincoln Memorial.

The ascension of President Donald to the most powerful man in the world is not an aberration of these trends over the last half century. Rather, The Donald is the logical result of a nation beset by tribalism, by a resurgence of racism, by a fear of those who are different, by the continued purchase of politicians and favorable legislation by corporate lobbyists and unnamed billionaires, by the continued accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense of the many, by the erosion of a once-admirable system of education from kindergarten to college, by the continued but unwelcome presence of American armed forces in other lands, by a governing political leadership that neither understands nor believes in science, by a president who insists on making enemies of friends … it’s a long list; you probably have your own.

That’s a bleak picture. But that’s my vision of what American has become in my lifetime. I’m not alone. Close friends have joked about what country they should leave America for … and then we all realize they’re not joking.

Still, friends and colleagues tell me, “There’s hope.” I thank them, but silently I wonder, “Well, where the hell is it?”

Then I remember Danica Roem, a former student of mine elected last year to the Virginia House of Delegates. She refused to take campaign donations from political action committees or lobbyists. She will rise higher politically. I hope she can continue that philosophy. There’s hope in her mission.

Then I read about 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th congressional district. Crowley is the No. 4 Democrat in the House. He is, well, was, powerful. So presumably there’s hope in Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s mission.

Yet … already Democratic Party leaders are co-opting Ms. Ocasio-Cortez as the “future of the party.” She’s already given endorsements to other candidates. And she can raise money: “Democratic strategists believe an email signed by Ocasio-Cortez would be an instant moneymaker, and that her endorsements and campaign stops could help drive progressives to the polls in November.”

Both these women can provide hope to those who see a Republic in need of a rebirth based on principles rather than acquisition and maintenance of power. But the degree to which they can bring needed change in national direction will be directly related to how effectively they confront the massive, powerful, wealth-fueled headwinds allayed against them — often by those (take heed, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez) of their own party seeking to take advantage of their success.

Maybe Ms. Roem and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, and other women entering politics, can draw moral sustenance from what Thomas Friedman calls “complex adaptive coalitions.” Friedman quotes a man who helped found a community discussion group that includes people of differing viewpoints:

The key to it all is trust. Politically we are all different, and our experiences are different. You can only get progress where there is trust. People trust that we are not in it for personal agendas and not partisan agendas. [emphasis added]

In trust lies hope. Yet I witness so little trust. So turn off cable news and its overblown punditry and panels whose members say I think and I believe instead of I know. Read journalists who’ve asked questions and received answers so they do indeed know. In all that time you save by ditching cable TV news, read a book. Coach your children to be more open to those who are different. Try to engage neighbors who differ in beliefs from you. Invite them for coffee.

Stop letting yourselves be told what to think instead of remembering how to think for yourselves.

I leave you with my closer from July 4, 2016:

The America you celebrate may not be the America that exists. Too many celebrants will watch the fireworks wearing blinders obscuring the realities that beset so much of America today. America can be a better nation, but those realities must be addressed by all of us — not just the Trumps or the Clintons or their rich, demanding, billionaire backers. But first we must all take off those goddamned blinders.

photo credits

first three by the author

Lincoln Memorial: Wikipedia Commons