Amid an election full of outlandish statements, Twitter spats and ad hominem accusations, many important problems facing America have failed to grace headlines. In the last of a five-part series exploring issues ignored during the 2016 presidential election season, Ryan J. Suto addresses America’s lost civic ideals. See part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.
In this divisive election, discourse surrounding our decision in November has focused more on the personal failings of the candidates than on concrete steps toward improving the United States. In that process, Americans have turned away from each other and failed to examine our civic ideals and expectations, leaving a dangerous gap between what we need this country to be and how we experience America during our daily lives. Only by viewing the country as a national community can we address our faults and reach our expectations.
We the People
As a country, we are slowly moving away from unum toward pluribus. Both Congress and we the people have become increasingly polarized over the past forty years. As a cause or consequence, the art of gerrymandering, while itself a concern since at least 1812, has grown into a science of new heights since the 1970s, aided by computer models and increasingly accurate and thorough data. Coinciding with this, the proliferation of media outlets on TV, radio and internet allows for partisan agenda setting to occur among self-selected segments of the US population, giving the politically active among us fewer salient issues in common.
Americans are geographically self-sorting as well: choosing to live in either liberal or conservative areas to better suit our comforts and preferred use of tax dollars. No longer is the “other side” in our life the misfit relative at Thanksgiving with whom we disagree but ultimately still love. Today, it’s the raging trumpeter or social justice warrior that we had to unfollow on social media because no decent person can actually believe those unsupported rants. This anecdotal change stems from a reality wherein Americans have fewer relationships with fellow citizens of different political, racial and economic categories.
This increasing lack of interaction and shared experience decreases the important human element of politics, which is itself perhaps the most human institution. Usual campaign rhetoric aside, most presidential voters for president will not be voting for their candidate but against the other. The 2016 election features candidates with the highest disapproval ratings on record. When Americans cannot legitimately comprehend, have empathy for or compromise with the values and political stances of the “other side,” our civic culture risks devolving further into dangerous and unproductive rhetoric.
The American Dream
A central expectation of Americans throughout our country’s narrative is the American dream—a term so often used among other platitudes we forget to examine its veracity. The dream is the potential of social mobility irrespective of uncontrolled realities such as parental income, national origin or race. This idea is what has driven immigrants to these shores for centuries and captivated the imaginations of hopeful youth and parents for just as long. If you work hard, American parents tell their children, you can achieve anything in this country.
This dream connects contemporary anecdotes with family history and the words of our great founders and maintainers, allowing Americans to pat ourselves on the backs and relish in American exceptionalism. The concept, however, is at best on life support: examples are comparatively scarce in today’s America, happening more often across time and across oceans. At worst the American dream is a noble lie: a story we sell to the next generation in order to instill faith in their potential and pride in their country. As a country, we have elected to allow this central value to devolve from what was once a reality to a mere dream—one in which you must be asleep to actually believe.
Similarly unexamined are our expectations of democracy itself. At the most basic, democracy is simply a replicable and defensible process by which citizens influence their governance. However, populations, politicians and even political scientists across the world read into democracy an impossible array of ideals and values, expecting the concept to mend divisions, feed the poor and create angels of humans.
An American politician once said: “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.” This approach to a mere method of governance renders any outcome short of utopia unsatisfying in comparison. Economic prosperity, the end of corruption, societal transcendence and national security do not come bundled with a ballot box. By merely casting a vote for an office, no nation can achieve government transparency, promote demographic acceptance or improve the economy—the US included. These high expectations from minimal input have created frustration both at home and abroad.
To address each of these issues, we must outgrow our fairytale that America is a land, protected from the rest of the world by vast oceans, where one needs only land, guns and hard work to fend for himself. In reality, a majority of Americans live in urban areas, gun ownership in the US does more harm than good, and at least 41 million jobs in the US directly depend on international commerce, with hundreds of millions more indirectly affected by realities beyond our borders.
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The US is not a loose association of individuals who happen to live near each other, as individualistic rhetoric may imply, but a national community wherein one person’s achievement improves the lives of all, and another person’s plight should trouble all as well.
Facing this reality means admitting that we have pushed frontiers of both science and creativity together, not individually; our successes owe gratitude to the participants who laid important foundations on which we can build. Such admissions will allow us to see the plight in vilifying those from flyover territory or secular progressives—America needs a diversity of thought and experience to continue to thrive.
Creativity, problem solving and innovation cannot emerge from 350 million people with the same values and experiences. From this lens, committing greater support for reducing income inequality, maintaining social safety nets and reforming public education allows for more achievement to touch our own lives.
To accomplish this, Americans will have to acknowledge that democracy is not a spectator sport—we must actively update and maintain the relevance of our electoral laws, from local to federal, to ensure our Constitution is a strong framework for involving those important diverse voices of the national community. Related goals such as advancing good governance and protecting civil liberties require more than voting once every four years, which is not enough to build a more perfect union. By thinking collectively, Americans can gain the perspective of what we owe to—and can gain from—our fellow citizens.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Denisfilm