Many Americans, perhaps most of us, have been unthinkingly smug about our national culture. In large measure we have taken our many freedoms for granted, and have seldom confronted them as the explicit conscious choices they offer us the opportunity to make.
In particularly vivid national elections, for instance, perhaps about half of our electorate will bother to vote. In state and local elections the participation is considerably smaller. In what is designed as a representative democracy, we return more than 90% of incumbent Congressional office-holders to their elected positions with hardly a nod toward accountability considerations.
These matters raise the question of whether we really care who holds the leadership reins in our country. Such diffidence has contributed greatly to our current condition of being more emotionally and ideologically divided as a society than at any time since our Civil War. Thus, the times are extraordinary.
For many generations we have relied on a vibrant two-party political system to find our way through contentious and challenging matters, using honest and truthful, if sometimes specious, dialog between disputants to work out ways forward. The abiding concept of loyal opposition, one that always respected the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution, allowed for thoughtful compromises that served most Americans.
Currently, in the case of the Republicans, loyalty is strongly expected to apply almost solely to party leadership pronouncements and personalities. The Republicans are offering nothing in the way of policies or programs designed to advance the public good. Instead, their abiding purpose is to block everything that the other side puts forward without meaningful, let alone enlightening, dialog.
Under such divided and contentious conditions, it might be useful to put the virtually unique array of freedoms American citizens enjoy into clear perspective.
Our Constitution and its supportive body of law allows us to move freely, assemble peacefully, worship without political or legal constraint, speak openly without penalty, and choose who can represent us without fear of retribution in a demonstrably honest election system.
Of course there are acceptable moral, common sensical, and legal limits to which these freedoms can be exercised. For instance, we can’t incite riots or governmental insurrection with vocal excess. We shouldn’t abuse free speech in opposition to valid, scientifically solid regulations that are purposed to the public’s healthy well-being.
Most regrettably, however, there are current segments of our society that think and act as tribes apart. Some of these tribes ignore and intrude on the rights of neighbors, and engage in behavior that is harmful to our respectful communities. American history is replete with examples of how our people united in common cause when threatened with existential issues. In the current era, however, where disagreement is met too often with hostility rather than thoughtful resolution, it is problematic as to whether unity can be achieved in time to ward off calamity.
Within the range of clear memory, war was perceived and understood as a condition of mortal combat between aggressive and defensive political entities that used physically destructive means to advance their ambitions or protect their assets. Bombs, bullets and death were the languages of those conflicts. In the past few decades, most of the world has grown much subtler than that, although the jury is still out on whether things like cyberattacks, misinformation, and dishonorable disavowal of previous agreements will ever fully suffice as the conquering instruments of warring nations.
However that may turn out, a reality of life in America today is that our country is under attack. The clear intent of Russia particularly, but also of China, is to weaken and undermine our democracy by using first a broad array of non-violent means. It would seem that these initiatives constitute a new working definition of war. If that assertion holds any water at all, we need to come together as we have in the past, and deal with it for what it is; an existential emergency.
Most immediately, of course, there is Vladimir Putin’s atrocious invasion of Ukraine, suggesting his impatience with non-violent measures and a reversion to the kinds of actions that historically have prompted Americans to come together over security concerns. Perhaps his current aggression will help awaken our own elected office-holders from the ranked order pettiness of their self-serving political ambitions, and stimulate fresh attention to urgent current national and world realities.
How and if we come together now will be a vividly telling measure of how far we have to go before realizing the wonderful potential of our democracy in a very changed world. There are already worrisome indicators of the challenges relating to getting our national act together in this freshly dangerous moment. Witness the behavior of former elected tribal officials in describing Putin’s thuggish prosecution of a shooting war as reflective of his genius or perhaps evidence of his being worthy of world respect.
If we can apply the tested criteria of treason as aiding and abetting an enemy in time of war and find it at hand, we start to get close to an idea of how troubled our journey back to unity will be. That said, of all the things necessary for returning to a cohesive nation condition, the primary and essential component is coherent wise leadership.
There are countless library shelves filled with books that discuss and attempt to define leadership. In the context of American unity, particularly as our way of life as a democracy is currently under internal and external assaults, the sort of leadership now urgently required is the kind that organizes all of our people, especially the elected ones that represent the rest, and directs us toward the public common good.
This means a style of transparent and wonderfully communicative governance that is founded on truth, no matter how temporarily inconvenient. It means we would recover our historic strengths in reaching productive compromises, and overcome the political tribalism that has been a major curse on our house for more than five years.
It means that the people, using all of the social, commercial, educational, and religious agencies that already comprise large parts of everyday life, will insist on being heard and will demand accountability from those in office. It means that we will learn how to manage and champion change in a global and vitally interconnected society.
Is this a too-tall order for us? I don’t think so, but it depends entirely on our willful determination to prove once again that the American experiment can be the light of the world.
Charles M. Ericson lives in Farmington.