E Plebnista: A Sardonic Meditation on American Greatness

Twenty long days have passed since I last put thoughts to words and words to (virtual) paper. I have not written about the gleeful euphoria with which I anticipated the election of 2016, the exquisite pain with which I learned of its results, nor the utter despair with which I react every time I hear the another news byte about the President-elect. However, as the days moved relentlessly through this year’s particularly cacophonous display of quadrennial civic duty, I have been pondering the oft-spoken concept of American greatness.  And in the ugly aftermath of the contest, I am compelled to share some of my thoughts.

Donald Trump’s sloganeering as he promised to “Make America Great Again” inspired not only the throw-the-bums-out sentiment that resulted in his election, but also its equal and opposite reaction: America never lost its greatness. I take a third view, more aligned with Stephen Colbert’s prescient 2012 title: America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t.

My first and academic reaction to any conversation about American greatness is to scoff at the bombast of the very concept. Beyond the accidental blessings of size and natural resources and the power that has resulted from them, our record of greatness has been at best mixed. The American experiment is based on indisputably great if not necessarily self-evident ideas:

  • 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,
  • That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

However, on Jefferson’s first bullet point alone we have an abysmal record. Enshrined in the very document on which any discussion of American greatness must rest is the acknowledgment that  some people were not quite equal in fact even if so created; “other persons” [slaves] counted as only three-fifths of a person for apportionment purposes, and Indians counted for nothing at all (U.S. Const. art. I, § 2, cl. 3). One of the unalienable rights in the third bullet point is certainly belied by the constitutional provision that the slave trade could not be prohibited until at least 1808 (art. I, § 9, cl. 1). And if fugitive slaves decided to pursue happiness beyond the confines of their masters’ plantations, their swift return was guaranteed in the Constitution as well (art. IV, § 2, cl. 3). Threescore and eighteen years later, with a change that exacted a cost of at least 650,000 “honored dead,” one of those barriers to greatness was abolished (am. XIII), and after three more years, those fractional persons officially became United States citizens (am. XIV). Even then, “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people” still had some distance to go, of course, in the face of the grandfather clauses and Jim Crow laws that sprang up across the South after the failed experiment of Reconstruction.

Adherence to foundational ideals has a checkered success rate even aside from the glaring and ongoing sequelae of slavery and racial politics. As early as 1835 in the first volume of Democracy in America, French diplomat and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville predicted with uncanny accuracy the “tyranny of the majority” that would over time trample the rights of people of other colors, languages, religions, and sexual preferences–all those groups we now call marginalized. This new kind of democratic tyranny has also been ideological; the enforced consensus about the values of Lockean liberal capitalism has seen the legal persecution of socialists and communists and anarchists and even labor unionists.

At some point, though, I must abandon the relative safety of history and forge ahead to the present. For example, despite the admirable goals of providing universal public education, American schools rank consistently low in comparison with other industrialized countries in studies by the Programme for International Student Assessment and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 2014, the OECD  ranked US  education 28th among the 76 countries studied. Although self-esteem was not included in the measures of reading, math, and science scores, I feel pretty sure that American schools would score a first if it were. In current politics, I reluctantly admit that my own party is the author of the present decline. However, the man who was elected on a platform of returning America to greatness has this week appointed as Secretary of Education a woman whose support of school choice and charter schools undermines any hope of revitalizing public education in the United States.

The American healthcare system is similarly low in world rankings. The World Health Organization currently ranks the US 37th in overall efficiency, a measure that includes health, responsiveness, and fairness in financing. The Affordable Care Act, despite its recognized flaws, has made great strides towards achieving healthcare for all. According to the United States Census Bureau, the percentage of uninsured Americans fell from a high of 16.3 in 2010 to 9.1 in 2015. Significantly, the campaign to make America great again included a promise to dismantle the ACA. In another health-related measure, the American Journal of Medicine  reported in February of this year that Americans are ten times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries, but somehow, making America great again includes no provision for reducing access to guns–quite the contrary.

Despite these misgivings, however, I do believe there are circumstances when greatness has shone through in our flawed history. This nation of immigrants has been a beacon to those seeking a better life before and after Emma Lazarus penned “The New Colossus” in 1883, and if the huddled masses have not always satisfied their yearning to breathe free, many millions have–my paternal grandfather included among them. But now our own masses have chosen instead promises of walls along our southern border and registries of Muslims. I also view with pride America’s greatness in seeking to make the world safe for democracy both in war and peace, failures and abuses notwithstanding. Thus, I hear with trepidation the incoming President’s qualified support for our NATO allies, as well as his talk of closing military bases in Japan and South Korea. For me, though, a free press is the bedrock of all the values of our constitutional system, so I fear most the combative attitude of the President-elect toward members of the mainstream media.

Finally, I come to the one central fact of American history to which I would attribute unqualified greatness–the peaceful transfer of power. And here I must bow my head in shame and part ways with my presumed political bedmates. Earlier this fall, much foofaraw was made of Donald Trump’s accusations of a rigged election. So during the third debate on October 20. 2016, Chris Wallace asked him, “Do you make the . . . commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election?” He waffled–and finally replied, “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?” And Hillary Clinton responded:

[T]hat’s horrifying. . . . This is a mind-set. This is how Donald thinks, and it’s funny, but it’s also really troubling. That is not the way our democracy works. We’ve been around for 240 years. We’ve had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them, and that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election. . . .  He’s denigrating, he is talking down our democracy. And I, for one, am appalled that somebody who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that kind of position.

Yes. And it goes both ways.

Clinton’s classy and gracious speech conceding the election should have been a signal to her supporters to follow her lead. Instead, protesters betrayed the strongest tenet of our democracy and took to the streets, not only with verbal protests against the results of the election, but also with vandalism, fires, and physical attacks on private individuals and policemen. Children were offered counseling, and college students demanded to be excused from their exams. A Wikipedia entry entitled “Protests against Donald Trump” runs to over 7,000 words and contains separate 525 references; it lists and describes hundreds of protests between November 9 and November 23. And perhaps the cruelest irony of all is that across the country, interviewers have found that a large percentage of these protesters either wasted their vote on a third-party candidate or didn’t vote at all.

I have from time to time been ashamed of many facets of American history and culture. The election of 2016 and its aftermath, however, show our nation in its ugliest aspect. Sloganeering demagoguery and wars of words in 140 characters or fewer have made us the laughingstock of civilized people around the world. Even the peaceful but especially the violent protests have taken the disavowal of democracy to even more subterranean levels. We, the people of the United States, have a duty to ourselves and to the world to rise above this fray and to rededicate ourselves to the constitutional democracy that has made us strong–and sometimes even great–for 229 years and counting. Otherwise (with appropriate apologies to Gene Roddenberry) we are just muttering “E Plebnista.”

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