In the wake of dreams
Months ago I was writing material related to the 2016 US election campaign. It felt too intense for the situation at the time, but it kept brewing in my head, even after I quit posting it mid-stream.
Now it's time.
It seemed to me then, that if (mystifyingly) Donald Trump was a serious contender for the Republican primaries, then it was possible he would be chosen to run, possible he would be elected. The contrast with the leading Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, was fierce, because whichever of them won the nomination, the final candidates' platforms would be so unlike each other. They each had quite different answers to "what is America and what should it be?"
And that's exactly what has been happening this month: Trump won the electoral college, while Clinton has almost certainly won the popular vote. Diehards on each side are grieving or celebrating because of how they expect a Trump presidency to change things. The numbers are still coming in, almost a week after election night, but it's clearly a narrow race. Nearly half the eligible voters didn't -- or couldn't -- show. Of those who did, a bit under half of them voted for Trump, and a bit over half for Clinton.
What the progressives are mourning, and rightfully so, is that approximately a quarter of eligible US voters chose hate. In a democracy, we like to think of our fellow voters as rational, caring adults, who thanks to mandatory public schooling ought to have the literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills to make an informed vote. Well, the US just proved that it ain't necessarily so.
Everyone has already talked about the disgusting comments and actions Trump has made or done that show what he really thinks of those who aren't straight white able rich men. Everyone has already talked about how white supremacists and other bigots came out of the woodwork to support him. Everyone has already talked about his tendencies to ignore or twist the facts to suit himself, his tendencies to lie and go back on promises. Somehow, a quarter of eligible US voters didn't think that stuff mattered. Somehow, millions of folks working for a living and desperate for a stake decided to put the entire US economy in the hands of a man who isn't a safe investment or a safe business partner. Somehow, a critical mass of conservative Christians elected a candidate whose approach to life is to hate, fear, and cheat his neighbour. Somehow, a quarter of eligible US voters chose -- whether deliberately or merely as part of a package -- to stomp on the shining ideal of America, to tear down the city on the hill.
What made America great was its attempt to live out the best of the Enlightenment, the best of Western Civilization. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Liberty, brotherhood, and equality. The US didn't succeed in this, and has been getting its nose rubbed in that lack of success...but even the attempt mattered. It counted for something, that plenty of Americans kept trying, that there was a national ethic of tolerance, of equality, of recognizing and surmounting prejudices and divisions as foolish and unfair. What made America great was its striving to combine neighbourly co-operation and unprecedented freedom and diversity (compared to Western politics in its early years). Its striving for equality and kindness, for a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven where "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female..." (Galatians 3:28, NIV).
There may be plenty of democratic countries now that work towards these ideals, but that wasn't so when the US was new. The ideal created by the United States' founding fathers went beyond their personal limitations, to glow like a beacon of what we should all work for. Quotes like these below used to be used in science fiction novels, to symbolize the humanitarian vision of new states springing up from the corpse of tyranny and dystopia:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That would be the Declaration of Independence. Today you might snark that it only applied to white men, and in practice that was largely true...but linguistically, at that time, "men" was more inclusive, used as we use "humans" or "people." The broader principle was already there in spirit, whether or not the original authors were ready to apply it.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
That would be Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus," famous for its use on the Statue of Liberty, at the immigrant's historic gateway to America. It's always been rough to be an immigrant, as your ancestors from the Old Country knew, and history has shown that immigrants enrich the economy and culture.
The merit, dignity, and evident success of these ideals surely helped lead to next steps in recognizing human rights, such as this one:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people..."
That is from the opening of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- a clear update and expansion of the concept behind the already-quoted snippet of the Declaration of Independence.
An America that brushes off its commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone is not, and cannot be great.
Reading and references: