Political analysts are telling us we are a nation divided, that the political map has been redrawn, and that old assumptions about political identity and partisan preferences no longer apply. If that’s true, and even if it’s not, this seems like an important time to ask, what do we Americans agree on? On what, if anything, do we stand united?
It’s a fair question as the demographics of our society change and national boundaries become less defining. Whites will be less than 50% of the population in my children’s lifetime. Immigrants will continue to enter our cities, wall or no wall, if only because business interests want them. International tourism has grown at above average rates for the last seven years; and globalization of trade is bound to expand with or without free trade agreements.
So if “American” doesn’t mean White, or Christian, or of European descent, or English speaking, or made in America, what does it mean? Perhaps more to the point, what do we want it to mean?
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump offered starkly different answers. She spoke of embracing racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity; moving to renewable energy sources to protect the environment; making pre school and college education, as well as health care, affordable and available to all; and increasing government spending on infrastructure projects to create jobs. Her values were based on inclusivity and care for others, especially those most in need of protection and support. Donald’s vision was vague but his most popular themes involved building walls, dangerous criminal foreigners among us, exclusion of ethnic groups, and jailing his opponent. His proudest values were centered on shrewdness, wealth, power, and dominance with something like distain for the weak and soft in America. Of course political campaigns typically seek to highlight differences in candidates’ views, but these two seem to be looking in nearly opposite directions for their visions of what Americans want and need.
Do we know what we want? Some things we would all say are important, like jobs, education, and health care. We claim allegiance to familiar founding principles like “equal opportunity,“ “all men are created equal,” and “justice for all.” But, if the question is what values, principles or policies are we as Americans actually committed to providing or protecting, even these can get watered down or abandoned in our relentless opposition to taxes, differences in who we think of as our brothers and sisters, and debates over the role of government.
It feels like we have been engaged in a civil war over the defining values of our country. On one side is materialist individualism sponsored by wealthy interests promoting a kind of laissez faire capitalism. The other side advocates collectively serving the interests and needs of a whole society, of a whole planet. One values wealth as power to be accumulated, the other believes power and wealth should be “spread around a little.” One views government as an intrusion on liberty, the other sees government as liberty’s guarantor.
There is truth to be found in both views, of course, humans and societies are complex. They are also evolving, and therein lies our problem. As goals, these values call us in different directions. In which should we invest for our future? The one that fosters and builds a self-serving competitive hierarchy or the one that aspires to harmonize individual parts into an egalitarian whole; the one that exploits people and resources, or the one that nurtures and preserves them. The former is represented by the dominant paradigm of capitalist economics, the latter is fighting for survival in post election social policies.
We pledge to be “one nation, indivisible” because we know that divided we’ll eventually fall. We now have a president-elect pledged and elected to divide us by race, creed, and national origin…for starters. What will we do?