Are we citizens or mere spectators?
The American two party political system is broken. The Democrats are attempting to go forward without any significant bipartisan cooperation. The Republicans have chosen not to have a legislative platform of any kind, and will devote themselves solely to regaining Congressional leadership power while blocking whatever initiatives the Democrats put forward, including, most particularly, establishing a Commission to discover the truths behind the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
To make matters far worse, our most recent former President engages fully with the principal agents of domestic terror and is perpetuating the enormous lie that he was outed from office in a fraudulent national election. This lie has been repeated so often that his base of voters seems to believe it. That the base represents close to half of the active electorate, and that many Republican state legislatures are developing new and highly selective voter suppression laws, are added powerful factors in this breakdown of America’s representative democracy.
In his farewell address, George Washington cautioned us to forever pledge our loyalties to our country, not to any political party. He had held office during the birth of a two-party system, and observed at close hand the nasty hand fighting between agencies like the Federalists of Hamilton and the Democratic Republicans of Jefferson as they attempted to prosecute party priorities.
People elected to national office, now in the 21st century, still swear to defend and protect our Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic. Most regrettably, almost every day we receive news that those oaths of office are being ignored by members of a political class that has evolved in large measure because the great majority of our electorate has merely watched and hasn’t bothered to hold office holders accountable for their performances after being elected.
To be sure, vacuous grumbling can be heard almost everywhere, but to no effective purpose. Recent poll data released by The Hill indicate that about 80% of voting Americans disapprove of their Congress, but we have a history of unthinkingly returning more than 90% of incumbents to their offices in national elections. That sounds like one result of voters hewing to party lines instead of judging candidates on the basis of demonstrated abilities and their performance in dealing with real national issues.
The mess we are in currently didn’t happen suddenly. In 1988, Barbara Tuchman, the renowned historian and chronicler of national governments, stated that the absence of a sense of honor was at the root of America’s issues then, and that our citizens had become almost satisfied to have people in government who were either venal or stupid. Further, she added that as a culture we were accepting of the lowest common denominators because that was easy.
The Tuchman appraisals had many of their roots in the catastrophic experience of the Vietnam War. The U.S. had moved into the middle of what was a civil war between the factions that emerged there after the French were defeated and dominance over the country was contested. From a silent psychological initiative that took sides in 1954 to a disgraced defeated military exit in 1973 after more than 58,000 young Americans had been killed, a lying U.S. Government had to finally acknowledge reality. By then, trust in government had been drastically compromised among the country’s young adult cohort.
A reinforcement of Tuchman’s assertion about our culture settling for the lowest common denominators showed up as recently as the national election of 2016, when one party nominated a mendacious arrogant poseuse with no significant record of public or private positive accomplishment, and the other party offered us a failed, pompous, lying grifter with no apparent sense of proportion, or even interest, in key national issues. We, the voting public, chose the latter as our Commander in Chief. There is no basis for surprise that after his single term in office the country finds itself in its worst internal mess since the Civil War, with domestic terrorism threatening the foundations of representative democracy.
As the shock and dismay at the White House-inspired invasion and desecration of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 started to abate, troubling new questions arose, particularly as to whether or not, however indirectly, we spectating citizens had been somewhat complicit in that terrorist attack. That question prompted fresh consideration of the rights and obligations of citizenship in America. In some senses it can be intimidating, because of its breadth and diversity, to think of our country as one national community, into which we were either born or naturalized.
It may be easier to understand a citizen’s personal allegiance to our entire nation when we consider that the nation is comprised of a multitude of communities: religious denominations, professional societies, civic service clubs, educational associations, political parties, business entities, labor unions, sports leagues, families, ethnic clusters, geographic neighborhoods, etc. Almost all of us consider ourselves members of one or more of these disparate groups for any number of conscious, or, in many cases, unconscious reasons. Taken together, however, they make up what is, hopefully, an indivisible country, one that takes its governing authority from its people, all of whom in their many activities are obliged to behave in ways that are consistent with the nation’s Constitution.
Underlying whatever conscious reasons that might be given for becoming part of a community is, inevitably, a powerful human need to belong to things that provide some measures of satisfaction to our personal value structures; that afford us opportunities to make positive contributions to the well-being of a whole community and enhance our chances of living authentically. Our contributions can be made by engaging in the affairs of an organization in one or more ways. We engage reactively when we respond to external stimuli in positive or negative terms, depending on our perception of how we and our community will be affected. We engage proactively when we advocate for different means and measures to advance our community toward whatever vision it holds for itself.
Interactive engagement happens when we actively involve ourselves with other members to accomplish part or parts of the community’s mission. When truly productive, these modes of engagement most often occur as something of a progression toward really accomplishing specific changes. In order to be truly meaningful, change needs to facilitate measurable progress in improving the organization’s ability to allocate time, financial, and physical resources coherently. Coherence should be observed objectively with measures that express the degree to which asset allocations contribute to accomplishing the community’s defined objectives, taken in pursuit of its vision.
The American people have a well-deserved reputation for their fundamental reliability and capacity for unified action when confronted by a critical, sometimes existential, threat. Making some allowance for the reality that some crises, like the Vietnam War, the Iraq adventure, and the overlong Afghanistan excursion were imposed on the country by misdirected and misrepresenting politicians, our country’s performance in response to external menaces like WW1, WW2, the Cold War, the Korean conflict, the great depression of the 1930’s, and the Covid-19 pandemic, were huge testament to our powerful national, and implicit resolve to do the right things.
Sometimes we stuttered and staggered at the onset of such challenges, but ultimately came on strong and prevailed in the interest of freedom and dignity. Strong Federal leadership made the critical difference in directing our resources to estimable outcomes. We the people had sufficient trust in our Federal government to follow its concerted directions. More recently that trust has been eroded by an agenda of lies and political party priorities that have impaired our ability to come together and confront the newly encouraged and deadly threatening forces of domestic terrorism. The big difference between what we have on our hands currently and what we have dealt with in the past is the scary fact that today’s menaces are homegrown. There are citizens among us who would overturn our form of representative democracy and install something akin to an autocracy. There are hopeful signs that the current Federal administration can begin to overcome the enormous obstacles erected recently by failed specious leadership, but our government needs an enormous amount of help from its citizens. “What kind of help?” might be asked.
We surely don’t need city or town block air raid wardens. We don’t need to put hoods around our streetlights to avoid silhouetting shipping to the advantage of enemy submarines. We surely can avoid food and gasoline rationing. We don’t need to encourage everyone to gather scrap metal for conversion into war materials. We DO need to raise our collective voices to bring our representatives around to effective legislation on firearms control, privacy protection, gender and race equality, campaign financing reform, climate change, voting rights, privacy protection, public education enhancement, positive international alliances, etc., etc.
The many local and regional communities to which we belong can be mobilized to insist on truth-telling, governmental transparency, and effective advocacy for all corrective and improving initiatives of broad application. All we really need to do to make things safer and universally beneficial is to muster the courage to engage and direct our communities toward the freedoms that have always made the American experiment the most satisfying way of living the world has devised so far.
Charles M. Ericson of Farmington in collaboration with his granddaughter, Sedona Ericson, age 15.
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