There have been a couple of times in my life when the policies and politics of the U.S. have seemed so alien and inimical to my sense of decency that I’ve wanted to leave. Those times were in my youth, when my life choices were driven more by perceived, than actual, injustices. But following the election of Donald Trump, that feeling has come back big time.
His systemic attacks on our social fabric and environment, aided and abetted by a complicit Congress, has shaken my belief in our corrective mechanisms as a society. Collectively, their perversion of our normal democratic process augurs a dark and depressing future for the United States, and a rejection of the assurances our history texts trot out—congratulating ourselves on our benevolent, welcoming, tolerant, compassionate, and caring “true” nature.
Granted, it doesn’t take too long in the U.S. to understand that a lot of the stated ideals are way overstated, and often undeserved as an always-true characterization. Our unkinder, ungentler nature has in evidence the subjugation of African-Americans in slavery, which morphed into chronic racism; annihilation of American Indian populations and decimation of their cultures; corporate greed that devastated Appalachia and abandoned our industrial cities; war mongering all over the world; the closing of our borders to desperate people; and our love of guns over lives.
So, are the ideals just fake? Are they just phony PR hooks that our politicians punch out during election campaigns to make themselves sleep better at night?
The answer to the cynicism implied in such questions is countered by the good we American people have done for ourselves and others historically. In fact, the consensus holds that the country’s trajectory over its 250-year span has been positive and has inclined toward realizing our better selves. We’ve recognized some of our shortcomings and addressed them over time, admittedly slowly, but steadfastly.
We’ve passed and continue to expand civil rights legislation, though the rights have never been won without confrontation. We’ve established programs to undo some of the damage to American Indian and black communities, though definitely not done enough for them to thrive. We’ve periodically opened our arms to refugee populations, though we’ve rejected and demeaned many too. We’ve acknowledged the personal and social damage that we’ve done to marginalized groups, like women and LGBTs, though we’re just beginning to learn how to repair that damage. We’ve recognized the harm that endemic poverty does to those afflicted with it, though our remediation efforts have not appreciably bent the curve.
Every so often, the upward trajectory toward the promise of our Constitution has stalled or even taken a dip, but only for a while, and then we resume course. But what’s happening now with the ascendancy of a virulent right wing and its attendant white supremacist movement, intent on hogging rights they have no exclusive right to, seems more foreboding. It’s as if the upward trajectory has permanently stalled.
Witness the current administration’s attempts to undermine important markers of us as benevolent, welcoming, tolerant, compassionate, and caring people. It says no to universal health care, no to livable wages, no to affordable education, no to social securities, no to our protection from assault weapons, no to the global threat of climate change. Instead, they say yes to enormous disparities in wealth, to bought elections, to military solutions, and, especially, yes to unregulated corporate greed.
So, what do we get for relinquishing all our better qualities? We get the unfulfilled promise of more money in our pockets. How much more money? Enough, as one of Paul Ryan’s constituents wrote him, to afford her yearly membership to Costco. In her case, that came out to $1.50 a week. This in the face of the millions of dollars the one percent get from the Republican tax bill. We’ve struck a Judas bargain—our ideals for $1.50.
Values and Vision
But it’s the history of our good deeds, spotty as it is, that gives me hope we don’t have to abandon the country to the corporations’ greed or restrict the rights inherent in the Constitution to just those with millions. It’s like a booster shot of trust in our democracy that increases resistance to all the crappy things trying to afflict us.
But what if the booster shot doesn’t kick in? Then a nagging voice suggests that going somewhere else might still be the only antidote. Maybe going to one of those left, social democratic “nanny states,” like Norway, which Mr. Trump, true to his contradictory nature, admires, and which always rate among the happiest. But the inconveniences of uprooting and replanting can be daunting. It’s ironic then that my periodic itch to leave the country is exactly what many corporate “citizens” and many one percenters actually do. They uproot from their communities, evade taxes, shirk commitment to their employees and fellow citizens, and expect favors and concessions from government to stay put. In a more perfect world, the obligations of corporate entities and the rich would not come second to the obligations they have to their communities.
The prescriptions to heal our way back to societal health include building social equality, electing representatives who honestly care about people first, supporting programs to change minds, countering hate messaging, and taking a long view of the consequences of our actions both individually and corporately. To the degree that this depends on the actions of government, then that government must lean progressive. This kind of progressivism isn’t wrapped up in any political blanket, but expresses a cultural awareness that what we have in our present government and economics is not fair, not good, and not sustainable.
A progressive stance means that we have the inclination and will to resolutely improve our communities by adopting approaches that impact positively and directly on individuals. It is trusting that our actions will trickle up to benefit everyone, not trickle down from those who already have so much and are reluctant to spare any of it. It implies, too, that we learn to trust those who actually know stuff and turn our backs on those who just blow smoke.
Progressive thinking as a trace to effective government policy fits naturally with the Constitution’s intentions to “establish Justice,” “promote the general Welfare,” and “insure domestic Tranquility,” without which we do not have and cannot form “a more perfect Union.” Those words succinctly embody much of the essence of patriotism. They acknowledge that in 1787, we were a work in progress, and imply that achieving progress results from maintaining a progressive vision. Progress being a necessity of change, and change being never ending, a progressive vision will always be needed and will always be patriotic.
ARTICLE BY: Jim Bauman
— Jim is a retired linguist (Ph.D. Berkeley), and has worked on issues pertaining to language and education on a number of different fronts.