Taking Their Lead From Us
Today some blame the politics of Washington D.C. for the state of our culture. While correct about the state, they have the cause and effect backward. As our culture erodes with increasing speed, it is wreaking havoc with the state of our politics, and there’s no escaping the root cause.
Whether to win office, or keep it, today our politicians routinely “weaponize” identity politics. They pour them like gas onto the fire of mistrust, hate and discord which seems to engulf our culture today. But as unfortunate as their actions are, they are just taking their lead from our culture. A culture of ever more caustic “me” voices, which create and nurture those identities within our society. As they do this, they are leading our nation into a place of unrest and decline. It is only our culture itself, more accurately “we”, who can reverse the slide. But we as a people, and as individuals, seem unwilling to lean into this fight.
We vs Me
As a nation we have historically viewed ourselves first as “American”, and only then as a member of a sub-culture. That sub-culture might be Black, White, Hispanic, or perhaps Polish or Italian. Historically, this view bound us together foremost as Americans. Then, with that bond in place, we could adopt a wide range of benign sub-cultures. We could be Hispanic-American, Polish-American or Italian-American. We each became a part of the mix of colors, styles and traditions which have made America the great melting pot we have been since the birth of our republic. But I contributed first as an “American.” This was a very “centered” view.
“My father was the son of immigrants, and he grew up bilingual, but English is what my father taught me and what he spoke to me. America’s strength is not our diversity; it is our ability to unite around common principles even when we come from different backgrounds.”
A Centered View
For decades, this view shaped how we saw our nation. It also shaped what we expected from our politicians. For them, it shaped how they responded to us as voters. This view drew both citizens and politicians toward centrist positions. More extreme views existed only on the ends of our political spectrum. The effect was to minimize the influence of those with narrow or extreme views.
This view also shaped how people outside America saw us. It shaped a view of America that for decades has drawn people from around the world to our shores. It has propelled them away from lesser opportunities in their home countries, and toward the “beacon of hope”, and the “shining city upon a hill” that both Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy spoke of. Their arrival upon our shores has been a source of value, diversity and character to our nation. Never has there been a nation which has drawn so many people to its shores seeking a better life.
“I received a letter just before I left office from a man. I don’t know why he chose to write it, but I’m glad he did. He wrote that you can go to live in France, but you can’t become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Italy, but you can’t become a German, an Italian. He went through Turkey, Greece, Japan and other countries. But he said anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American.”
But “American” is now losing its place as the essence of how we see ourselves. No longer content with being “American” first, we now extend the growing “entitlement” mindset to how we craft our national identity. We now submerge “American” in favor of narrower, self-centered views. We are instead now White, Black, Hispanic, Millennial, LGBTQ, etc. The “me” view reigns, as the “we” view fades.
“American? Hey, I’ll get back to you on you that.”
In 1988 as he was leaving office, President Ronald Reagan worried about a increasing lack of institutional patriotism in America. He saw early signs of a loss in the belief in American exceptionalism. The rise of the self-centered “me” view worried him. He was right to worry.
This shift away from an “us” and toward a “me” culture is having a toxic effect on our politics. It speeds up the shrinking of the center which has for so long shaped America; eating away at the centrist view that has served us so well. As these “me” views consume our center, they feed the extremes of our political spectrum. In the vacuum they leave behind as they migrate to the extremes, what remains of our “center” is suffocating.
It’s easy to dismiss these “me views” as harmless because by themselves they don’t seem dangerous. But as they grow in number, they combine with the effect of shredding the fabric which represents our nation’s culture. A fabric that has held America together since our founding. While that fabric might be imperfect, it has united us and sustained societal progress. Progress in addressing those parts of our culture we need to improve, such as race relations and female equality, both perpetual challenges for our nation.
It was in part one of these “me views” of our society that helped get Donald Trump elected – the white supremacists. In November 2016, they were awaiting someone who would stop those chipping away at the comfortable world they had known for so long. Trump recognized this, and fed on those simmering grievances. Those feeling left out had a champion.
These entitlement views are reshaping our political future on the largest scale. As we increasingly define ourselves first through them, rather than as “American,” we are speeding our journey to a nation of extremes. As we do so, we drag our politicians along with us, and expose a sad truth – more than the long term health and prosperity of our nation, most politicians now look only toward re-election. They will sacrifice our nation’s well-being in the long term for the sake of their near-term victories. They should lead and reconcile since we charge them with the long term prosperity of our nation. Instead, they look past that knowing the consequences of their actions or inactions will come only after they leave office. In this, they do us all no favor, and themselves no justice. They should lead with wisdom and the long view.
“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
By not being willing to step back, and to join ourselves together first as Americans instead of some sub-culture, we as adults are condemning the youth of our nation to a future perhaps more bleak than that of any previous generation of Americans. I for one hope we are better than this.
And just in the interest of a little humor:
“My folks came to U.S. as immigrants, aliens, and became citizens. I was born in Boston, a citizen, went to Hollywood and became an alien.”