How does one define the “modern world”? Most would say it is our contemporary world. But what makes it modern versus its predecessor? Many historians would agree with me that the answer begins with the American Revolution and the new republic formed in its aftermath. The principles that formed that republic were partially foreseen during the Age of Enlightenment, courageously declared in 1776, and then experimentally constituted in 1787. But even at its founding, there were cracks in its foundation that fourscore and seven years later shook a budding nation to near collapse. But the experiment was destined to continue, even after the spilling of much blood and the imposition of martial law over much of its territory. Initially, America was referred to as the “new world.” What was discovered as “new” became “modern” because of its initial declaration that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These were the rights used to justify the institution of a new nation subject to the “consent of the governed.”
Later, in the formal Constitution of this new “model” of a nation, a marker was set down that has bedeviled America ever since. The goals expressed in this document were ambitious enough: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” What made these goals extraordinarily ambitious is that they were stated as means to an end. That end is the new nation’s fundamental underlying purpose, namely, “to form a more perfect Union.” In that purpose we find the crux of nearly every internal conflict this nation has endured since its founding—from Civil War, to reconstruction, to women’s suffrage, to civil disobedience, to the initial revulsion against almost every new wave of immigrants, to segregated housing, and to contemporary issues of fairness in the criminal justice system, in policing, in the provisioning of public services, and, as witnessed in the recent campaign, in the treatment of immigrants on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or legal entry into the country. The problem with this “more perfect Union” is that it implies social assimilation as well as de facto equality under the law. The former is a responsibility of every citizen. The latter is the purview of the government that guarantees the Constitutional rights of every citizen.
Even a very cursory review of human history must recognize how America’s very existence is a break with all of human history. Previous to its founding, nation states were formed around racial, tribal, and/or religious identities. America broke with this past and aspired to be different. What it created inspired many nations to form liberal democracies, though none as pluralistic as America would gradually become. The ongoing struggle to form that “more perfect Union” is at the very heart of America, its founding principle. It is also at the center of America’s evangelical influence on the rest of the world to follow its example in governance. Especially since the world wars, American diplomacy has encouraged the formation of democracies and a world order that mimicked its rule of law. The result has been the United Nations and so many other international organizations that influence trade, currency, worldwide humanitarian interests, and so much more. Europe, in particular, has benefited with NATO securing its borders and with the impetus to form its own interdependent union of historically distinct nations. It is almost as if the American Pledge of Allegiance has been extended from “one nation under God” to one world, “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Globalization, for example, is an analogue for America’s interstate commerce. The United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Geneva Conventions, and so many other international agreements and treaties reflect America’s federalist propensities. For better or worse, America has become the archetype for the modern world.
If you will concede that America has become the blueprint for a modern world, then you must also admit that it is a work in progress. And, as President Obama recently admitted, that work does not progress in a straight line. Besides the internal conflicts already mentioned, there have been many obstacles to that progress. For example, the nineteenth century gave birth to two very different economic/philosophic ideologies, namely, communism and capitalism. The former never really took root in America, despite the fears raised by McCarthyism. The latter actually undergirded the institution of slavery, for cheap labor was the underpinning of the South’s economic juggernaut and its plantation lifestyle. Its moral justification—that Blacks represented an inferior race—was a bit of sophistry to win public support for an inhuman economic system that perverted the key founding principle of America. After the Civil War and the failure of reconstruction, capitalism was the engine behind a new age of industrialism. It unleashed an era of wealth for a new class of economic barons who threatened to control the country in the service of growing their businesses and profits. President Teddy Roosevelt feared this threat; but, more importantly, wanted both labor and business to work fairly in the interest of the nation as a whole. While he introduced legislation to curtail monopoly and corruption, the breach between the economic wealth of the rich and poor widened until the stock market crash of 1929. It was Teddy’s cousin, Franklin, who began to introduce the bank controls and safety net legislation that established some measure of control over unbridled capitalism and of economic security for Americans.
Why do I bring this history into my narrative? Well, it is prologue to another hurdle for this grand American experiment in a self-governing pluralist nation. We just experienced an election campaign where we granted to an elitist billionaire the power to purge America of his self-ordained undesirables, namely, immigrants who are neither Christian nor white enough. His campaign promises regarding undocumented immigrants and Muslims categorize people by ethnic origin or religion in order to deny them the American experience and acceptance into the American community. His campaign was divisive. In addition, he is appointing other billionaires to his Cabinet who have supported policies that further divide the nation by undermining universal public education, nationwide environmental protection, union membership, American Indian treaty rights, criminal justice system reform, fair housing programs, and affordable health insurance for the poor, while proposing tax advantages for the very rich. The gap between the rich and poor, to illustrate just one example, will be further widened by making healthcare and education too expensive for millions and by changing the tax system to favor the rich more than it already does. Whatever might work towards a more perfect union he seems intent to dismember, defund, or simply negate by executive fiat.
Most of these policy positions cannot be enacted without the support of Congress. But many will find support in Congress where similar positions on repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax reform have already been proposed. In addition, the Speaker of the House would like to privatize Social Security and replace Medicare with a voucher system. A compromise between the Speaker and the President Elect might deliver legislation that suits both of their interests. The Speaker’s ideas for tax reform are already very similar to the President Elect’s proposal. The Speaker’s plan, however, is not as generous to the super rich as the President Elect’s, whose plan would increase taxes for the few poor barely living above subsistence level (earning less than $18,550) by 2% and decrease taxes for the upper middle class (earning between$151,900 and $231.450) by 2% and for the very rich by 2 to 6.6%, on an ascending income scale. Billionaires, of course, would rake in many more billions under these proposals. These policy positions have the net effect of increasing income inequality and further polarizing the nation into the “haves and have nots.” This economic polarization further accentuates the divisions he has already advocated between native or naturalized citizens and the undocumented, and between Judeo/Christian and Muslim.
When the President Elect admitted that the nation is already divided, I suspect he was referring to the urban and rural divide that he exploited so successfully. But he has yet to propose anything concrete that would bring these groups together either. It is true that globalization has incurred job dislocation along with the benefits of free trade. He promises to address the concerns of rural communities that are often disproportionately affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign labor markets. He has promised to make better trade deals and to repeal NAFTA. Even if he could repeal NAFTA, the net effect would likely be some decline in the Mexican economy, more border crossings for job seekers, higher prices for goods manufactured in Mexico, fewer jobs currently dependent upon our exports, and less income from the export business we now have with one of our biggest export markets. The net effect is not readily determinable and was certainly never itemized by the President Elect. Besides, he has not included in his analysis the impact of technology on manufacturing or other blue-collar jobs. It is not likely that a forty year out-of-work steel worker and head of household will be able or even want to obtain a college degree in order to support his family. The President Elect has made no mention of alternative blue collar work that might be made available, such as building windmills or assembling and installing solar panels. Like the current Administration, he supports infrastructure programs that would require unskilled labor. Unlike President Obama, he makes no mention of an infrastructure bank that would rely mostly on private investment. Instead, the President Elect wants to invest public money towards a trillion dollar infrastructure restoration. His purpose is laudable, but it does not address the loss of good paying blue collar manufacturing jobs. Many of the applicants for the jobs he wants to create are the very people he wants to deport. Moreover, his tax plan will not support these expenditures without blowing up the Federal debt. Besides the groups he has already alienated, like minorities, immigrants, and Muslims, he offers no solution for those others who feel isolated and adrift in an economy that is leaving them behind.
The actual promise of the next administration is further division and a dismantling of policies that might actually bring the nation together. Wittingly or unwittingly, Donald Trump is whittling away at America’s founding principle. If allowed to continue on this path, he will not make America great again. America’s greatness has always been in the future, not in its past struggles to advance the goals initially set in our founding documents. Our history has always been about realizing what it means to declare that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights. Plainly, America is about assimilating all groups within its borders and governing “with liberty and justice for all.” By contrast, President Elect Trump conducted a campaign that succeeded by “divide and conquer.” But if he governs in this manner, he will not be able to continue this nation’s progress towards a more perfect union. Instead, he will become liable for its deconstruction.
Earlier, in the twentieth century, after the communist revolutions in China and Russia, many feared the threat communism posed to American democracy, especially after the socialist legislation of the New Deal. But communism exploited social justice in a way that socialism could never imagine. It was not communism that threatened American democracy, but communists. While China never presented an existential threat, Russia’s very real nuclear threat did. The Cold War exasperated this threat. It was not, after all, Russian communism that unnerved us, but Russian militarism. Henry Adams, the renowned historian and progeny of two American Presidents, had foreseen this military threat of the Russian bear as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century. Now, after Russia’s unprovoked invasions of Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, President Elect Trump seems to favor some form of partnership with the Russian dictator. Vladimir Putin has long sought to reclaim the Soviet Empire’s status as a co-equal super power with the United States. He would welcome any form of joint agreement that might divvy up the world into equal spheres of influence. But appeasing Putin would unsettle all of Eastern Europe and weaken the NATO alliance that protects all European borders (reference “Why does Putin Favor Trump”). In addition, the President Elect’s remarks about abandoning America’s policies on nuclear non-proliferation not only threaten to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement but also encourage South Korea and Japan to become nuclear powers. Taken together these policies could spell an end to the Pax Americana or, at least, to America’s ability to maintain peace through diplomacy alone.
After having drawn this bleak picture, I must pause to admit that conjecture is not necessarily prologue to the future. Certainly, there are signs that point to a pivot from what we have come to believe to be the “modern world.” Populist movements seem to be gaining strength in many western democracies. The European Union, for example, seems to be near the breaking point. The BREXIT vote in England and the recent no confidence vote in Italy may just be the beginning of a wave. But, as Mr. Trump said during his campaign, he would not govern the way he campaigned. Listening to his recent interview with Chris Wallace, I was impressed with his sincerity and obvious emotional commitment to bring constructive change to American government. But, at some point, he needs to stop being the purveyor of sham facts to support his cause. Presidents need to win over the public with sound policies and honest communication. In the same interview where he argued eloquently about inhibiting corporate flight, job dislocation, and regulatory obstacles, he also stated that he won the greatest landslide victory in history. Actually, his margin of victory in the Electoral College ranks forty sixth amongst the fifty eight presidential elections. And he lost the popular vote by the largest margin of any candidate who won in the Electoral College. (There were only two other instances.) At some point, he needs to deal with facts if he expects to gain credibility with a majority of the electorate and not just with his supporters who believe in him without regard for the truthfulness or substance of his message (reference “Politics and the Illogic of the Heart”).
The press is already going crazy with their nitpicking about his non-attendance at daily intelligence briefings, about the absence of press conferences, about Mr. Trump’s excluding of the press from his dining out plans, about the imagined significance of everybody seen in front of the elevators at Trump Tower, and so on. Imagine the press reaction to his more substantive actions or policies as President. Although Mr. Trump has been allegedly quoted as saying “all press is good press,” I do not believe the manner in which he manipulated the press during the campaign will work to his benefit as President. There is a higher bar of truthfulness for the Presidency. He needs both to be informed and to inform at least as professionally as his predecessors in office.
If a tsunami is approaching, we all need to move to higher ground. Much of what we have grown to recognize in the modern landscape may be swept away. But each of us can survive, in fact, become better versions of ourselves. What I mean is better illustrated by what I have witnessed in my life. Many years ago, I found myself in the middle of a fierce war. Even to this day, there has never been a war where more live action fire fights were recorded. Missed in this recorded history, however, is the number of civilians caught in the crossfire: refugees moving from village to village, carrying their wounded, sick, and aging with them. They moved as a community, each caring for the other. The courage, the compassion, and the resilience I saw in many Vietnamese faces are etched in my mind forever. Even to this day, when I happen to meet a Vietnamese from that time, I ask for his or her story. Usually, I tear up and end our conversation with a hug. But that hug is not so much spawned by compassion, but by gratitude.
Politics can improve or destroy lives. Diplomacy can secure peace or devolve into wars. But only people of character can inspire others. Over time, that inspiration will eventually lead to better institutions of government, to improved relations between countries, and someday to a world community that protects this planet and its inhabitants.
Most often the reason Americans fall prey to anxieties and fears is the absence of any real threats to our security or wellbeing. We fear we may not be up to the test. It is only when truly put in danger or challenged, that we have the opportunity to test our worth. After Pearl Harbor, men volunteered for service and women replaced them in the factories while still caring for their children. African Americans walked into an angry mob at Selma and withstood the anticipated onslaught. When we have the courage to join with others and face our challenges and fears, we make the resulting engagement meaningful and discover our own strength. We may be facing difficult times ahead or not. The future is not yet determined. But if it marks the end of an era, then it will be up to each of us to define a new era.
I believe in America, and I believe in you, my fellow Americans. You care for your family and friends; you not only do well at work, but do good as well; and whatever you create, you make available to all. You should feel grateful for what you have and for what you can contribute. Whatever may be in store for America and the world, it will not change your worth or the meaning of your life. For only you can do that.