Both political parties have staged their virtual conventions, both have set off their fireworks displays, and both have warned against the existential threat to America posed by voting for their opponent. And that is the scratch line behind which we stand in the race for the White House in 2020. Perhaps the overriding question before us is: Irrespective of the outcome, can there be anything approaching a victory given such a divergent matchup?
Pressured by a polarizing presidency, a viral pandemic – along the economic crisis that attends it – and street protests erupting against a backdrop of police brutalities committed against unarmed black people (like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks), America is once again searching for those elusive ties that bind at a time when there’s money and political capital to be made by the forces of denial, distrust, and opposition.
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll (June 7, 2020) found that 80% of the public believes the country is out of control, while only 15% view it as being guided by a steady hand.
If we break that WSJ/NBC poll down, it is likely that we will find a wide gap in the understanding of how the nation became so polarized and what we might do to correct it, if anything.
But the sense here, and it’s an ironic one, is that the Gadsden Flag’s “Don’t Tread On Me” brand of staunchly American individualism and anti-government sentiment that earmarked our nation as something new and revolutionary at its founding, the same individualism that helped create the American pioneering and entrepreneurial spirits that proved to be such a strength within a more widely spread homogenous population, has now become the very quality that keeps us from being able to unite in a time of crisis in a more tightly packed, yet heterogeneous society.
Imagine that, our greatest strength now part of what is working to keep us apart. So much so, that the concept of “We, the people” no longer seems applicable some 244 years after our founding.
What’s missing is a widely accepted sense of common values and purpose, like the unifying drive for freedom from monarchical England in the 18th century – which, don’t forget, wasn’t monolithic at the time, either – or the shock of Pearl Harbor in 1941 or 9/11 in 2001.
But cataclysms don’t provide sustainable political unity. We have to be for something together, not just against this thing or that as individuals.
The effects of globalism that ties capital together beyond national borders, and a series of new technologies that make every citizen complete in him/herself, have left the once unifying concept of community and country incapable of bringing us together beneath a single tent.
And absent any such a new unifying purpose – hell, even a raging pandemic hasn’t – the American experiment in self-rule will continue to split farther and farther into those deeply opposing camps until any sense of an American people as previously understood will dissipate into permanent divisions of Us and Thems.
It’s a delicate determination, for sure, but the perception of what it means to be an American is what hangs in the balance this November 2020.
If we primarily define America by its language, borders, and culture – the first and third brought to the second from the shores of Great Britain – and later, the descendants of the slave population shipped to these shores beginning in 1619 – then the wave of not-native-born, hyphenated Americans who are increasingly displacing those of a whiter shade of pale is understandably a disquieting turn worth challenging.
But if the true America isn’t just found in its language and culture, important though they are, but in the ideal that was articulated at the founding that “ALL men are created equal, etc.”, the America exemplified by “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, if that is the real America, then whatever shade the American complexion may take or accent it may speak or culture it may produce, are less consequential if those complexions, languages, and cultures pledge allegiance to that same originating American ideal, not simply its constantly evolving cultural milieu. And since our borders have long since expanded to Hawaii and Alaska, we have already traversed the concept of place as being nationally determinative.
Yet in these circumstances, we can still wholly honor the founders of the country for their ideal despite their contradictory nature of claiming freedom and espousing equality while simultaneously owning slaves, and put that contradiction into the context of their times even as their ideals continue to spread hope for freedom around the world.
But if America truly defines itself in terms of a majority of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants with an additional few Catholics from middle and Eastern Europe, and some oppressed Jews, and maybe some STEM-infused Asians to keep us ahead of the scientific curve, and some ball players out of the Dominican Republic, and everyone else just stay the f#ck out, then America never was the country it purported to be.
What is also true is the failure of newcomers to assimilate into long-standing national norms will only further fragment an already multi-faceted population until what we share isn’t a land, but simply its ground.
In the end, we either believe in the founding declaration itself, or you just believe in the people who made the declaration and accept, as they did, the assumed limitations they intended upon making it, i.e. “all land-owning white men are created equal and endowed by their (Christian) creator with certain unalienable rights…”
And that is the question being asked of today’s Americans like never before.
It is how we answer that question in November – what truly defines “America”? – that will determine which direction this republic takes into her future years, a forward-thinking idealized one of many shades or the backward-looking one of a single color and attitude.