What if the American experiment has reached its sell buy date? What are the chances the 244-year run of “the last best hope on Earth,” as Abraham Lincoln said, is not just in twilight, but already too far gone to save?
Lincoln’s hope for the world depended on, he said, “plain, peaceful, generous, just” actions by Americans who profoundly disagreed about big issues but were still bound together by a common purpose — to be part of a country bigger and better than its differences.
What if the United States of the 21st century is not the place Lincoln thought it to be, but just too big, too diverse, too divided, its population too invested in tribal loyalties and hatred, too eager to condemn, too sure of its own righteousness and too certain of its disdain to survive? What if our 244 years of failing to really confront the original American sin of permitting, indeed encouraging, human bondage has finally visited a reckoning on us?
What if the parallel crises of race, pandemic, economic and climate upheaval is just too much for our inadequate leadership, our fractured social compact and our wildly differing views of reality to handle?
What if surviving world wars, economic collapse, including a decade-long depression, a deadly pandemic a hundred years ago and the catastrophe of civil war in the 1860s was just part of a trial run for ultimate failure in the 21st century? What if “the last best hope” isn’t?
I confess that I have never before, even in the abstract, really considered that the end might come. The United States is, after all, as we used to tell ourselves, “the indispensable nation.” The “greatest country” on the planet. We had the biggest economy, the best health care, the most freedom. We are, or we told ourselves we were, “exceptional.”
But now we see it was all a lie. We told ourselves stories about how great things are and we believed our own press releases. We said the American system — checks and balances, fair and free elections, holding people accountable, the “rule of law” — could be shaken from time-to-time, but would endure. The idea, we told ourselves, was that our very special Constitution would protect us from crooks and charlatans and despots. Congress would exercise its independence and hold a chief executive who got too big for the Constitution accountable. After all, Republicans told Republican Richard Nixon that the jig was up, and he had to go. The system worked. Back then.
Not to worry, we convinced ourselves, American ideals, perhaps never fully realized, like the “all men are created equal” language not really applying to all persons, would still, by hook or crook, prevail. We got this covered, we assured ourselves. A momentary blip in the body politic and before you know it, we’ll be back on the path to perfecting “a more perfect union.”
But we aren’t on that path. Our current path is down a long, dark alley where division and discord seem to be the only truly exceptional things about the country.
As Thomas Geoghegan recently put it perfectly: “We are at a moment like the one the country faced in 1932 — there is not just fear and uncertainty and a sense of being unmoored but also the doubt that our form of government is capable of coping. In a way it is even worse: Unlike in 1932, the plot against America is already in full swing, and we as a people are even more uncertain of who we are.”
A thing to remember about the United States is that it’s just an idea — an idea built on a very flimsy foundation. It’s not the laws and the Constitution that ultimately matter, but rather that people — citizens and their leaders — will decide, even when it means acting against immediate self-interest, that they will still act in good faith. The idea is that respect for the norms of a democratic society will be observed and that decency will ultimately prevail, even if observing the norms and behaving decently mean that my side is going to lose some of the time. How obsolete that seems today.
If America is not to pass away into something Lincoln would not recognize, that Franklin Roosevelt would find repugnant, that Gen. and President Dwight Eisenhower would reject, we need to recapture a shared sense of national purpose.
We can begin with a fundamental question: What do we really stand for? It’s not that we stand for any one president or any one political position, but what is really in the American DNA?
The Catholic scholar Thomas Levergood takes me back to my own belief in my church’s social message, which is to search for and find “the common good.” Levergood recently defined the idea in an essay in the Jesuit journal America: “In a specific sense a common good refers to something that can only be shared in common and cannot be divided in pieces and be possessed by individuals or smaller groups. It is a common end achieved through common actions.”
Levergood continues: “It is in plain view that many of our fellow citizens are so frustrated with our political system that they have fallen for populist rhetoric to condemn all ‘politicians’ or government itself as evil. (Others are taking out their frustrations by tearing down statues.) This situation derives not from bad ideas or faults in the American people but rather from lacking the common good of a functioning political system.”
We fix what ails America and avoid obsolescence by rededicating ourselves as citizens to creating a functioning political system that aims squarely at the common good, not what’s good for a Republican or a Democrat, a socialist or a libertarian, a conservative or a liberal, but an American.
Deirdre Schifeling, who heads an organization dedicated to expanding voting rights, recently told The Guardian she believes this election marks a tipping point in America, a moment in which the country, having been jolted out of its complacency, will rebound. “Faith in our democracy is at an all-time low and that is very dangerous. Now the work begins on fixing it.”
Let’s hope she’s right. And let’s find our common purpose before it’s too late.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.