Today We Hold the Future in Trust

The United States of America is falling apart. Our politicians are corrupt at worst, completely unserious at best, and have turned the nation into a circus. The civil rights and even lives of large swaths of the population are being taken away. Christian leaders have a stranglehold on the public discourse and even the government. We are divided, we are constantly fighting amongst ourselves. The end, surely, is near.

The United States of America is falling apart. Our politicians are engaged in an ongoing struggle to take our rights and are turning the nation into a prison camp. Large numbers of undesirables are dragging us down, some from within and some from without. The nation has turned away from god. We are divided, we are constantly fighting amongst ourselves. The end, surely, is near.

It’s easy to get down on life in the United States of America, especially now in the post-9/11 world. It seems as if we’ve lost something fundamentally — for a lack of a better word — American about America. America, after all, is the land of the free, the land of opportunity. Or, at least, that’s what it says in all the grade school history books.

America as a nation is an aspiration. What it aspires to has changed drastically in the two and a half centuries since we declared our independence from the British Empire. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that every single change of aspiration has come because of a fight.

We paint ourselves in colors of blue and red in America and talk about this great fight between the Democrats and the Republicans, between the liberals and the conservatives. I don’t think that really explains what is going on too well, though. I think the big fight in America is between the progressives and the regressives.

The progressives are the ones who are always looking to the next injustice and trying to identify the next fight. They aren’t and never will be satisfied with the status quo as long as that status quo includes one person whose voice is silenced. The regressives are the ones who are always digging in their heels and saying, “Haven’t we gone too far already?”

This is far, far more complicated than the simple blue state/red state dichotomy. It’s far messier than the straight ticket party representation that seems to be the norm. It’s how a Ron Paul can walk in lock step with the Republican Party on fiscal policy but be completely against the so-called War on Drugs. It’s how President Obama can continue US policies of indiscriminate drone warfare and the so-called War on Drugs. The progressive move for the former is the realization that we’re criminalizing too many behaviors and imprisoning too much of our population for no good reason. The regressive move for the latter is in attempting to maintain this notion of the United States as the savior and policeman of the entire world and the last bulwark against any and all forms of overseas chaos.

We’re so caught up in the day-to-day battles and so focused on the incremental victories and tiny losses that we miss the big picture. American history is the story of progressive victory after progressive victory. The score sheet isn’t even close.

We need to remember that the United States’ Constitution, for all that it was a revolutionary document at the time, was ratified with one of the most odious phrases of all time. Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 says, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” That “three-fifths of all other Persons” at the end is what is known as the three fifths compromise, wherein those grand defenders of freedom decided that, yes, the United States would continue to own slaves and, yes, the slaves would count towards the population so that their white owners could have appropriate representation in the House of Representatives, which would be the primary bulwark of America’s freedom. We eventually fought a war to fix that one.

Oh, and that war? That one is actually surprisingly complicated on the progressive/regressive spectrum. It’s pretty obvious that the regressives were the ones who left the country in order to continue owning other people. The progressives weren’t really in the conversation at first, though. For the first year and a half of the war the North was content to fight to preserve the Union and Abraham Lincoln would have allowed the South to come back, slaves and all, at first. That he’s now known as The Great Emancipator is as much a mark of his shrewd political maneuvering as anything else.

Also, if you were a woman when the Constitution was ratified you didn’t get to vote. They didn’t get that right until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1919. That’s nearly a century and a half after the Constitution was written and 65 years after the slaves were freed and instantly enfranchised.[1]

On the economic side it’s also been win after win for progressives. Unions were illegal, minimum wages nonexistent, and workplace safety an alien concept as we entered the 20th Century. That was a fight that progressives fought hard and won.

I’m not saying that we need to look back and say, “Well, everything used to be worse, so let’s stop fighting now.” No victory is permanent. No one is free until we’re all free. The fight now is harder, too, since we’ve already taken care of much of the low-hanging fruit. “People shouldn’t be property” is pretty easy to conceptualize. “Women should be allowed to vote” is, too. It’s a testament to human stupidity and the power of tradition that we didn’t allow for those truths for so very long.

We’ve moved a step or three further back into the esoteric. It’s obvious to some of us that women should have the same education and career options as men, that black people should have the same as white. It’s obvious to some of us that women who have sex shouldn’t be missed as whores, that black people shouldn’t be dismissed as thugs and welfare cases, that Muslims shouldn’t be dismissed as terrorists.

The fact is, though, that we need to stop being so damn pessimistic. Progressives scored a couple more big victories these past couple years. Gay marriage is now the law of the land. $15 minimum wages are on the way in parts of the country. Is that enough? No. Not by a longshot. Racist police are everywhere. Mentally ill people are able to get guns and use them to open fire in Amy Schumer movies. Poverty still stalks the land and the poor are still beset on all sides.

History is not our enemy. The aspirational nature of America is not our enemy. Despair is our only enemy. We must keep pushing forward. We must keep calling out for freedom.

There is nothing new under the sun. We fret about a nation where Donald Trump is the Republican candidate. We worry that bankers blew up the economy and got off scot-free. We fear the spirit that brought us The Patriot Act. We wonder about how so many people can still think that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim attempting to take over the country with Mexican immigrants.[2] This, in truth, is absolutely nothing new.

We’ve always had unserious presidential candidates. A few of them have even made it all the way to the White House. Andrew Jackson comes to mind. Zachary Taylor, too. Andrew Johnson was probably more disastrous as an accidental president than Sarah Palin would ever have been.

Throughout the late 1800s and into the 1900s we had periodic Panics. We would call these Panics “recessions” today. They happened because the captains of industry and bankers fucked around and nearly tanked the economy. We finally stopped them after the Great Depression because of a combination of Keynesian Economics, WWII, and the post-war boom.

Before the Patriot Act we had the House UnAmerican Activities Commission. Before HUAC we had the Know Nothings. Before the Know Nothings we had the Alien and Sedition Acts. We always came to our senses eventually.

Before Obama’s birth certificate we had Bill Clinton’s penis. Before Bill Clinton’s penis we had JFK’s Catholicism. Before JFK we had the South holding the country hostage to try to keep Lincoln from being elected. Before Lincoln we had the Alien and Sedition Acts.

I do not think we spend enough time contemplating the existential American horror of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

What’s my larger point? Simply that America has pretty much always sucked for some of its citizens. It has always been up to Americans to make America suck less. American progressives have done an admirable job of that time and time again. We need to keep up the fight but we also need to look at where we’ve been and how far we’ve come and realize that we shouldn’t despair. It is better. It will get better still.

We need to keep up the fight. We are, honestly, losing ground on a few fronts. That loss is not a signal to despair and quit. It’s a sign that the fight is never fully won. Remember that as you go to vote in the coming week. This last year and a half has been awful, but it’s been a weird, transient sort of awful. I’ve been trying to remind everyone that our elections are always awful and always important. They all matter. We can always go backwards. This one might just be about holding the line, but it’s an important line to hold.

The fight doesn’t end on November 8th, either. We elect our representatives. They answer to us. On January 20th, 2017 it becomes our job to hold their feet to the fire.

America only works if Americans make it work. Let’s not forget that.

[1]Erm, kinda. It depends on if you’re talking about the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

[2]Or, y’know, something. I still haven’t figured out what Obama’s evil plan is.