Who Are We, Any Way?

If there’s anything Donald Trump’s presidency has provided America, it is an intense, national examination of the nature of class and voters’ political motivations. Trump’s election, and the transformation of the Republican Party into a nationalist, authoritarian totem has scrambled conventional thinking about political and social divides of every kind.

Every week we receive a new treatise telling us who Trump voters really are. This week The Atlantic told us that evangelicals are the ones who really elected Trump. But we’ve also heard tales of blue collar whites (now rescinded), disaffected middle class whites and also minority voters who felt let down by Barack Obama’s presidential tenure.

The Democratic and Republican parties are tearing themselves apart in response to Trump, each in their own way. A growing coalition of socialist Democrats are trying to take control from the “New Democrats” who first rose to power under Bill Clinton in the 1990’s, while some conservatives rail against voting for the Republican Party at all in this year’s Congressional mid-term elections.

At the moment, America seems like a crazy, topsy-turvy country, with no clear center and a million competing visions for the future. No matter what the political issue, gun control, abortion, energy, environment or transit, the fractures created by geography, class, race and religion loom larger than ever. We are bedeviled to find a common language as we are blessed with internet-speed communication.

From our very beginning, America was forged from different peoples with dissimilar, often incongruent ideas about the nature of liberty and nationhood. At our best, the fact these differences exist is the bedrock of American diversity. But occasionally these opposing ideas of liberty divide us to the core, and once that divide is exposed, it often takes either great leadership or a cataclysm to bring us back together.

Our two earliest colonies, Massachusetts and Virginia, founded by Puritans and Cavaliers in the 1500’s, had very different ideas of a successful society. Puritans were a close-knit community with rigid rules for all participants, but also with a high priority on the population’s general welfare. The Cavaliers, in Virginia, created an exploitive, every-man-for-himself society with that held the individual’s abilities and freedom at the highest level.

Throughout American history, these two ideas of liberty – rule-bound but with community assistance that frees a person from want, versus freedom from government that makes success or failure entirely your own – have been the core of almost every internal conflict. Soon after independence, this split drove America’s first crises over taxation and a national bank. The split revisited us eighty years later, leading to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Today, our struggles over the role of the welfare state and who is really entitled to be an American can be traced back to that split.

What do we stand for, any way? The Trump Administration continues to pull down icons of the old, liberal order, leading everyone to question what it means to have “American values”. Just this month Trumpists won Supreme Court judgements that stymie public employee unions and reduce voting rights while ordering federal bureaucrats to new levels of cruelty by separating toddlers and children from immigrant parents at the border.

Strong unions, voting rights and open borders, major policies enacted in the 1960’s and once considered bedrock, are now all up for debate.

Does the Trump Administration embody American values? A respected poll released Thursday reports 47% of Americans approve of President Trump’s job performance. While in office, Trump has never gotten below the high 30’s, suggesting that some large portion of America really likes what he’s up to, and always will.

Meanwhile, a survey sponsored by former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Joe Biden found that 55% of Americans believe American democracy is getting weaker. A plurality of non-white Americans believe racism and discrimination is weakening democracy, while 77% of all Americans believe “the laws enacted by our national government these days mostly reflect what powerful special interests and their lobbyists want”.

Clearly, Americans are conflicted. We have a lot of opinions about Donald Trump, but it doesn’t seem we’ve made up our mind about him and what he’s up to.

One thing I’ve learned about democracy is that it’s easy to find people with an opinion. Ubiquitous polling has proven that. But it’s a whole other thing to find people that will vote. The voting part is what decides which values become policy.

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