No Exceptions: America Belongs to Us All

I’ve been seen a great number of my assumptions about this country challenged in the last few months, none more more aggressively than my longstanding belief that Americans are, by and large, earnestly interested in exploring the breadth and variety of the American experience. We are a bit self-obsessed as a people, and I’ve always considered this navel gazing to be our saving grace (despite its obvious drawbacks in an increasingly interconnected world, where the fate of our nation is mutually dependent upon the fates of so many others).

Lately, however, this tradition of fascinated self-interest in American exceptionalism has become more exclusive, shrinking the definition of who among us actually qualifies as “true” Americans. Instead of reveling in our national melting pot, where distinct communities are rendered into oneness by our highest ideals of inalienable rights granted to all and equality in the eyes of God and country, we are suddenly fractured and frightened, perceiving differences as threats and diversity as a sign of weakness.

“This demonization of otherness subscribes to no party or platform.”

This demonization of otherness subscribes to no party or platform. I’ve heard both liberals and conservatives alike openly advocate for secession in recent weeks. I’ve heard angry citizens on the right and left encourage their compatriots to challenge the legitimacy of election results (before the election in the one case, and after in the other). I’ve watched as Democrats and Republicans have closed their ears to one another, isolating themselves in echo chambers of comforting opinions that provide no challenge to their already held beliefs.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. There are certain forces at work that contribute to this aversion to open debate: Congressional districts that are designed to be perpetually non competitive, a habitually obstructionist two-party system that aims to divide huge swaths of the country into “us” and “them” with no overlap, elected officials that endeavor to placate their constituents with sound bites bereft of nuance, and a fractured media landscape where information is self-filtered into only that which is sedative and reaffirming.

Personally, I find this entrenchment to be incredibly boring and not a little dangerous, so I’ve decided that a few undeniable facts about this country are worth mentioning and considering:

  • The America you were born in cannot be and will not be the America you die in. There’s no helping this. Time, as they say, waits for no one, and if your political imperative is to arrest the march of progress you can only be disappointed. Sorry not sorry.
  • Americans come in all shapes, sizes and colors. This is a fact. If you were asked to pick only the Americans out of a lineup, your best bet would be to pick them all. Demographically speaking, we are the world’s waiting room.
  • Americans pray to a wide array of gods (and in an increasing number of cases, no God at all). The majority of Americans pray to the God of Abraham who presumably speaks English, Hebrew, Arabic, etc with equal fluency.
  • The American electoral system, while flawed, works. Under the best of circumstances, 40% of voters are disappointed in the results of our presidential elections, and we’ve managed to avoid violent insurrection for the last 156 years. This year is no different. Four years from now we’ll all have another crack at it, just as it’s always been.
  • Americans are not monolithic. We believe all sorts of things, many of which are mutually exclusive in practice. While frustrating, this constant tug-of-war of values is the very thing that makes this the greatest country on Earth. I wouldn’t want to live in a place where everyone looked and thought exactly like me. And the right of my neighbor to think differently than I and to openly advocate for his beliefs without fear of retribution is one of the handful of things we’ve collectively decided to protect because it works in everyone’s interest. Honestly, it’s kind of awesome.
  • Competition is, I believe, the bedrock upon which this country was built. I genuinely believe in a marketplace where the best ideas supported by the best evidence will rise above the rest. If you find yourself disappointed at the ballot box because you truly believe that your idea/candidate was better and you lost nonetheless, simply remind yourself that your chance will come again like clockwork, and that there are people like me out there willing to be convinced.

Which brings me to this:

  • Americans need one another. We need each other to govern effectively. We need each other for protection. We need each other for support in times of crisis. We rely on people every day that we might not agree with politically, but to whom we are bound by our Americanness.

When Americans rushed into downtown NY and Washington DC to rescue other Americans on September 11th, no one thought to demand that the bleeding and broken produce a green card, or identify their sabbath day, or declare their sexual orientation/gender identity. It is truly a shame that it tends to take catastrophe for us to focus our efforts collectively, and that in the absence of an external enemy we invariably aim our anger inward at one another. Elections exacerbate this tendency to a degree, and so I take some solace in the fact that this most recent one is over (in spite of the results).

“Donald Trump is neither messiah nor devil, and the same goes for Hillary Clinton.”

A final point: Donald Trump is neither messiah nor devil, and the same goes for Hillary Clinton. It seems absurd to have to say so, but the tenor of the campaign and its aftermath makes such a disclaimer salient. I suspect this is the moment I may lose a reader or two (or more), but I’m willing to believe there are people out there who’ve still got the capacity for reason even in a panicked and fraught moment in our history.

Presidents are merely placeholders, filling an office that has reliably outlived its occupants since 1789. Provided we take a few breaths and dial down our rhetoric a notch or two, that office will continue to exist long into the future. It will be filled over and again by Americans different in many degrees from those that first designed this place, but bound by an abiding faith in the decency inherent in all people and their right to live lives free of oppression and manipulation.

To those of you who think my optimism foolish or naive, I can only say to you that I believe you are wrong, that I will work to protect this national project with the fullness of the resources available to me as an American, and that I expect that I will ultimately be proven right. And if these words go down as the “famous last” type, I am glad my mistake was an unflagging faith in the country that made such words possible. Clumsy though it sometimes is, this is America — our America — the greatest nation on Earth.