Nobody is perfect, and a nation made by imperfect people inherently cannot be perfect. Part of this imperfection is the delusion that we can fix the problems of today without learning and appreciating what has come before, leaving our imperfect past behind like the dirty dishes at a restaurant table.
In fact, most of the problems currently facing the United States make little sense when viewed strictly in the present tense. Seen only from the perspective of today, there is little reason for the hostility between many black and white Americans. Or the shift in governmental focus from running the country to an all-encompassing competition with the other party. Or that a lot of us see the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of climate change as a cultural battle to be “won,” instead of trying to deal with them objectively and collectively.
What used to be problem-solving has been replaced by problem avoidance — unless the problem can be blamed on the other side.
As schoolchildren, the majority of us were fed a national myth along with our cafeteria lunch that paints American history as relentlessly upbeat or a continual climb toward greatness. While “bumps in the road” like slavery, the Civil War, the Great Depression were acknowledged, that was then, and they were smoothed over. As with Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra (a slogan also used by Ronald Reagan in 1980), it was implied that all we needed to do was return to some rosy, indefinable point in the cherished past.
It is certainly true that America has been blessed in many ways and still has enormous potential. At the same time, we seem to have gone off the rails in the 21st century. Where is that dysfunction coming from?
I would argue that many of the current problems in our society can be traced to the imperfect cultural and social ideas of our past. Let’s look at some of these.
1. In terms of ethnicity, national origin, religion, and political views, our nation is incredibly diverse. Thus, no single school of thought will ever “win” the debates that inevitably arise. Therefore, we need to learn to compromise for the common good. Compromising for the common good means embracing our diverse cultures and history.
2. Americans are fiercely competitive, seemingly at our best when confronted with some outside adversary. We see that competitiveness and individualism in the metaphor of sports. Most Americans ignore sports such as track and field or skiing until the Olympics begin, and then they become symbols of our ability to outcompete adversaries as we spur those athletes on with chants of “USA!” Many Americans hate the idea that soccer games can end in a “tie” because they believe sports should only have a winner and loser.
On a larger scale, some of the proudest moments in our history came during the 20th century’s two world wars, victories we still celebrate. This competitive nature is fine in sports but it does not work in politics.
3. Governing is neither a sport nor a war — yet Congress currently functions on a numbers-based model. Given the obvious polarization and the narrow margins that creates, only a few votes can separate the winners from the losers. The losers are then shoved aside in the actual governing process, no matter how many Americans they represent.
4. Shouldn’t moving the country forward override petty political gamesmanship? Sen. Carter Glass and President Woodrow Wilson were both conservative in most respects, yet they collaborated on a federal reserve system designed in part to reign in powerful banks. Theodore Roosevelt was no liberal, yet he saw the evil of corporate monopolies. Although he shared the racial attitudes of most southerners of his time, Texas native Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock to support school integration. These are lessons in placing practical and/or moral considerations ahead of a party line or personal beliefs.
5. At the same time, it is in our DNA to mistrust the government. Many of our ancestors came over to America because they felt forced to do so, others because they saw it as a place where the government would leave them alone.
6. The Civil War did not neatly conclude at Appomattox. The aftermath left many white southerners embittered by their post-war treatment, while the great mass of freed slaves was first abandoned by the federal government, then essentially re-enslaved in the south by the restrictive Jim Crow laws. This seminal event in American history ended only 155 years ago, a mere blip contrasted to many European and Asian societal grudges that originated in the 1400s. Hatred generally has a longer shelf life.
7. Given the rise of the Internet, the same problems that have afflicted us throughout what is often called the “American experiment” are now thrust into our faces. In the process, some of the freedoms we cherish — the right to free speech and the right to bear arms — have wound up being weaponized by the culture wars.
As individuals, most of us eventually realize that we often need to deal with people we dislike, or with whom we disagree. We know we can’t have everything we want at the expense of everyone else. We get over the idea that someone else’s success automatically means our failure. In other words, we find a way to keep the selfish impulses that exist in every human being on a short leash.
If only our society could do the same.
The first half of Darrell Laurant’s new book, “What Holds Us Back,” can be read for free on the Website blessedbetheundiscovered.com.
* Notes from the executive team: Darrell has been a regular correspondent for the Commoner since the organization’s founding. We encourage our readers to download his new book before the election. The book provides insights into the American political system and American culture, so it will be a valuable resource to any voter in 2020. What Holds Us Back is free to download and it is an incredibly informative read. *
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."