The Genius of America

The fact that our American democracy has lasted for nearly two and a half centuries a justifiable source of deep national pride.   Our way of life is the envy of world.   It’s easy to conclude that our success can be transplanted to other countries. If a nation is ruled by despots, we’re certain that a democratic revolution is the key to escaping the tyrant’s grasp.

Occasionally the United States has attempted to install democracies in other nations.  But few, if any, have been successful in the long run.

If the simple idea of democracy was enough to guarantee the success of a struggling nation, then the success of our country would be replicated throughout the world.  To state the obvious, this hasn’t happened.

There is a genius in America that is not widely understood in the rest of the world.  Over the last decade or so, I fear that even we are losing sight of the cause of our greatness.

The solution is not found in more stern-faced flag waving, or in insisting that personal religious beliefs can be successfully morphed into civil law.  It’s both more simple and more complicated than that.  The genius of America has always been our ability to reconcile two irreconcilable traits:  a strong and stubborn sense of individuality, coupled with the ability to find compromise in our differences to achieve the greater public good.

Individuality and compromise are, at best, uneasy bedfellows.   In America there will always be tension between holding fast to our individual beliefs and coming together as people of goodwill to find ways to solve problems that leave all parties with a sense of mutual success.

But despite the inevitable tension, somehow in America we’ve made it work—from Washington all the way down to the neighbor over the fence.  The American ability to reconcile what on the surface is irreconcilable is the genius that continues to make us the beacon of hope in a darkened world.

Others have tried to copy us and failed.  My concern is that today we are failing ourselves.

Last October Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the court’s most reliably conservative voices, spoke about leaders of both parties who seem incapable of compromise, and the impact of their impasse on those they govern.  “We have decided,” he said, “that rather than confronting the disagreements and the differences of opinion, we’ll just simply annihilate the person who disagrees with us. I don’t think that’s going to work in a republic or in a civil society.”

And yet the articles of faith of modern politics continue to harden in the concrete of public discourse, as practiced by both sides of the political spectrum:  Compromise is weakness. Complexity confuses.  Preach unity, but promote division.  As a citizen, you are not only entitled to your own opinion, but to your own set of facts. Since opponents are by definition immoral, the use of immoral tactics to defeat them is morally permissible.

And finally, the bedrock belief that has now been preached for a generation by many modern journalists in their cynical effort to increase their own audience:  Journalistic objectivity is impossible.  Any journalist claiming to be objective is lying, and therefore cannot be trusted.  Give your trust to those you can rely on to reinforce your own opinions, instead of seeking a wider view of the complex challenges facing us.

It seems to me that we are best served as a society when we can display the genius which has made us the greatest nation on earth for nearly 250 years.  We are individuals, yet part of a whole. We enjoy working alone, but we understand that we must work together or we will likely fall.  And we must be able to collective agree that people with whom we disagree are not necessarily stupid, blind, or morally corrupt.

It’s that house divided thing suggested by Abraham Lincoln back in the day. But then again, Abe was always pretty old school. These days I wonder if he’d get airtime on either Fox News or CNN.  All that compromise talk doesn’t really play to the base, y’know?

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