How an Election Set us Free

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time wondering why Donald Trump is the President-Elect of the United States.  This is not the kind of “why” that is actually asking “how.”  I’m not contemplating what did or didn’t get said by the Trump Camp or the Clinton Camp to Rust Belt workers or West Virginia coal miners or disillusioned Bernie-or-Busters.

No, this is a true why.  If every development in life has meaning (and I believe it does), then what is the meaning here?  If every event has purpose (and I believe it does), then what is the purpose now?  In other words, why?

I believe there are probably scads of answers to the why, maybe one for each of us.  I may have landed on one that works for me, though.

There is a concept called “American Exceptionalism.”  It is the belief that America’s history (including her world-changing Revolution) and democracy (which the rest of the world needs, of course) place this nation in a superior position.  It is the belief that the United States is truly exceptional, truly better than the rest of the world.  This belief is so widely held in political circles that President Obama was “accused” by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal of not adhering to it, a claim that might be considered “fightin’ words” to many on Capitol Hill.

This sense of American Exceptionalism oozes from the pores of our society.  We see it in the cocky strut of an NFL player scoring a touchdown.  We hear it in the chants of “USA! USA! USA!” at the Olympics.  Any teacher can vouch for the unearned level of confidence displayed by a student population that ranks unremarkably in the middle of the worldwide pack in science and math.

The truth is we’re not exceptional.  This is especially true for those, like me, who believe in the unity and equality of all humanity.  Yes, we had a remarkable Revolution and established an early model of modern democracy.  I know how profound all of that was; I teach it on a fairly regular basis.  But we didn’t invent democracy, the Greeks did.  And we didn’t win a revolution on our own; the French helped considerably, as did others.  And in the midst of lofty ideas of civil liberties were the more base motivators of taxes, trade, and economy.

No, we’re not exceptional.  We’re another link in a long chain of human evolution.  We have some truly admirable qualities; we also have many that are not.

In 1630, John Winthrop preached a sermon to Puritans on board the Arbella.  The sermon was called “A Model of Christian Charity,” and in it he referred to the society they would form in the New World as “a city upon a hill.”  The phrase comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but since Winthrop, it has been synonymous with first the colonies and then the nation.  The concept maintains that this “city upon a hill” is a model for the world.   It was not merely a 17th century idea.  John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and, yes, Barack Obama all made references to it during various speeches.

And that brings us back to Donald Trump.  During the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Mitt Romney made this statement about Trump:  “His domestic policies would lead to recession; his foreign policies would make America and the world less safe.  He has neither the temperament nor the judgement to be president, and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”

And there’s my why.  We’ve thought we were hot shit quite long enough.  We’re not.  We sometimes make terrible mistakes.  If we can manage some humility, we might learn something through this.  At the very least, we can finally put down that heavy mantle of greatness we’ve lugged around for so long.

Four Score and Seven Years . . . From Now

The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.… Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?

                                               — Henry David Thoreau

You can blame my college history professor for this post.  During a lecture years ago he let slip an aside that I’m not sure anyone else in the class caught.  He said, “In America, in 50 years — assuming of course that there IS an America in 50 years — we will . . . ” and the rest of it doesn’t matter.  I stopped listening at that point, shocked into a mental paralysis by the previously unconsidered possibility that landthatilove might someday cease to exist.   Over the years, I have come to see the statement as not  just a possibility, but a probability.

I have a core belief in evolution.  Not just the Darwinian variety, though I give it all the proper credit due a proven scientific theory.   I believe in a more blanket kind of evolution, as in — Everything Evolves.  Species and systems.  Plants and people.  Conch shells and countries.  Gorillas and governments.   If it exists on this planet (or on any other planet, for that matter) than it is subject to evolution.  Quite simply, the first of the 10 Commandments in the Church of Deb is “Change or Die.”

I have tried to explore this idea with my students, with not much success, I’m afraid.  They seem absolutely convinced that Democracy, Capitolism, Nationalism, Patriotism, and every other ideology associated with being a good Amurican have existed since before the dinosaurs and will outlive even the planet we seem hellbent on destroying.  When I try to suggest that perhaps extreme forms of patriotism run the risk of becoming “borderism,” a specific brand of prejudice based solely on geographic boundaries, they slit their eyes and look at me suspiciously.  It would not shock me at all if one of them shot back with, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

When I went so far as to ask them for a short paper answering the question Thoreau poses in the above quote, I received some of the poorest essays of my teaching career.  They simply couldn’t wrap their minds around a post-Democratic world.   And that saddened me.  We will not evolve until a generation is capable of envisioning the next level.

To be honest, I don’t have the answer either, but I do have a few ideas.  I believe a future stage of group evolution will have to include a de-emphasizing of national differences, a form of free-market capitolism that puts money into its proper place (pretty low) on the priority list, and an understanding that win-lose simply doesn’t exist.   True evolution will involve an understanding that all boats rise or fall together and that military defense is immensely less important than developing a sort of world consciousness, a kind of extrasensory understanding of what most efficaciously serves everyone.

Our experiment with this democratic republic has been a glorious and admirable endeavor.  I value living in a nation that has been the leader in so many ways in evolving our governmental consciousness worldwide.   But as much as I appreciate our brilliant founders, not attempting to improve on their work would be akin to driving Model T Fords for the last 100 years.

Perhaps the next time I ask a class Thoreau’s question, I should have them meditate on the words of another great American before beginning to write:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
— John Lennon