The Fourth of July is only a few days away. Newspapers and the internet will publish copies of the Declaration of Independence, and communities will celebrate, but this year with deeply conflicted emotions. It should be clear by now that we are engaged in a battle for the soul of America, the outcome of which is yet to be determined. What nation will be celebrated on July 4th in years to come? Will it continue to faithfully live into what the Declaration could but vaguely hope, and the Constitution promise, or will it adhere to another, darker vision?
There was another time when our nation was at war with itself, army against army, family against family. By late fall of 1863 it was not at all certain what the outcome would be. On November 19th, Abraham Lincoln began his brief remarks on the Gettysburg battle field, saying; “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
We have endured through another seven score and fifteen years. Wars, domestic violence, and economic hardships threatened, but the nation endured, grew stronger, more confident, and prospered. Then it changed. It began slowly with outrage over Vietnam and civil rights. Government became suspect. Decades of pointless wars shook our confidence. The rumble turned to eruption with the overwhelming popularity of a two term black president who helped set the stage for a new America in which white men would no longer be the nation’s undisputed thought and opinion leaders. The fragile equilibrium of the social and racial hierarchy had been shattered.
Now we are engaged in a battle for the soul of America, not with armies, at least not yet, but with words and actions. Social and racial anxieties coincided nicely with a tea party/libertarian movement demanding an emasculated federal government limited to national defense, and a few transportation and interstate commerce functions. Fierce opponents of anything they can label as socialism, many feel compelled to be as heavily armed as possible, claiming it their constitutional right.
Other Americans believe the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, regardless of race or condition in life, requires a federal government more deeply involved in securing them. They trust in the resilience of the traditional ideals of our constitutional democratic republic to enhance personal freedom and quality of life for all persons in the increasingly complex conditions of life on this planet. For the most part, they have no interest in being heavily armed, and abhor the violence emanating from an unrestrained gun culture.
It might have remained a vigorous political debate, but Trump was elected president. He’s been publicly clear and unrepentant about intending to be a ruler, not a president. His lack of knowledge about, or interest in, American history, its Constitution, the rule of law, and our shared political traditions have abetted his single minded intent to rule, and so far he’s had his way. As chaotically unpredictable as he appears, his dogged determination to win on a narrow agenda of issues by causing others to lose has served him well. His methods are eerily like those used in 1930s Germany. His rallies whip up the enthusiasm of angry supporters who are told their personal troubles are caused by hordes of illegal immigrants, while the nation is beset by disloyal allies and a rapacious China. Whatever is left of the Republican party has submitted with the whimpering of frightened puppies. Democrats huff, puff, and bluster, but have little power, so Trump doesn’t care.
His supporters and sympathizers imagine a prosperous, self sufficient America of hard working people enjoying a good life. A nation free of welfare dependency. A nation unentangled from global commitments. A nation uninfected with brown aliens upsetting the demographic balance. A nation united by traditional values culled from 1950s nostalgia. A nation free of government limitations on personal autonomy, and regulations limiting business practices. They are convinced that unchecked immigration across the southern border has flooded the nation with people who are a danger to their safety. They are convinced that America has been betrayed by its old allies, and is under economic attack by China. They willingly and stubbornly put their faith in Trump as the strong, decisive leader who will cut through red tape and congressional blathering to make things happen. They are unaware that their libertarian values of personal autonomy are at risk. They cannot be convinced otherwise.
The other side is not a side, but a conglomeration of sides who have difficulty agreeing or coordinating with each other, but there are shared links that bind them together, however loosely. They see signs of a move toward fascism in which the state, in the name of defending workers, subjects them to state control. They recognize that social and environmental issues have no respect for state and local boundaries, and must be addressed at the federal level. Big government is not a threat to them, but ineffectiveness through inefficiency is. They understand taxes to be our collective investment in the well being of the nation, and expect them to be fairly collected and efficiently used. They have a high regard for education, science, verifiable data, and reliable public policy analyses. The growing ethnic diversity of the population delights them. They believe that border security begins with fair, simple, more easily navigated immigration laws. It continues with diplomatic work to aid in restoration of safe, stable, free home countries of those seeking asylum. They understand that the economic future of America depends on immigrants. They recognize globalization not as a policy that can be reversed, but as a reality to be lived into. They treasure old, established alliances. They recognize the challenge of Chinese economic practices, and the best way to meet them through tough, good faith negotiation. They are deeply concerned about income inequality, the need for universal affordable health care, and the eroding effects of corporate socialism. They know that expansion of power through military conquest is no longer a realistic threat to any major nation, and that local armed conflicts are wasteful and immoral, but profitable for arms dealers.
July 4th is coming up. The two sides will walk together in parades, and face off against each other across town squares, each wanting what they think is best for America’s future. Tweeting away in their midst will be a president committed to his own power and authority, which he will try to sell to willing buyers at the cost of their freedom and the soul of the country.