I’ve been feeling nostalgic for the spring and summer of 2012. M and I were living and working in Saigon, far away from the bickering and embarrassment of the Sarah Palin/Tina Fey show. Obama looked like a shoo-in, though it was likely his second term would be handcuffed by Mitch McConnell and a Republican Senate. The campaign was in full swing, but we were on the sidelines an ocean away. If we wanted to know what was happening, we bought the International Edition of the New York Times. But even that was rare.
Now we’re back and times have changed. The bickering and posturing of 2012 seems quaint by comparison and nostalgia is a totally inappropriate response. The 2020 campaign is in full swing, and we, the American people, are in a mano a mano for our democracy. For historical perspective, the 2020 presidential election may be as consequential as the election of Lincoln in 1860.
At the moment, the Democratic hopefuls are mud-wrestling for the nomination. Bernie is ascendant, but no one has demonstrated star qualities. No matter who the eventual nominee is, he or she will be carrying the future of the country on his or her shoulders. Those of us who are passionate about denying Trump another four years need to focus. It is inconceivable that the America we grew up in is now under the thumb of a president whose sole governing principle is the consolidation of personal power.
In 1776, the founding fathers had no template for a new nation-state, but all of them – Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay – had ideas about what they did and did not want their government to embody – ideas generated by extensive reading in the philosophy and literature of the social contract. They knew Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau.
When independence was declared, the organizing principles were still being debated. England had the Magna Carta but it was an unwritten constitution and the seceding Americans felt the need for a founding hard copy document. In 1781 Articles of Confederation were ratified, but by 1783 it was obvious that something more comprehensive and cohesive was needed to hold the new nation together.
How it all came together is complicated, devious, serendipitous, mysterious and inspiring–just like the end product. Madison did the basic homework (study) and drafting. Hamilton, Jay, and Madison argued their theories and competing points of view in The Federalist Papers. Franklin and Jefferson weighed in with their diplomatic experience as French and English ambassadors. State legislatures added their input and on June 21, 1788 New Hampshire became the 9th of the 13 states to ratify and make it the governing document. By 1790 all 13 of the original states had ratified and it was unanimous.
Two hundred and thirty years later as we look back we might imagine it was a seamless process, but the truth is those early days were just as chaotic and divisive as the ones we are living through now. Democracy is messy. The rosy pictures in our high school history texts hid that truth.
Once again, we are perilously close to either a Nietzschean Will to Power totalitarian moment or a Lord of the Flies unraveling where we lose our way and begin eating each other. If you need something visual, just watch a Trump rally on the same night as a Democratic candidate debate. Trump is a Mussolini-like caricature who can’t get enough of the carefully choreographed adulation while the Democratic hopefuls interrupt and demean each other about Utopian healthcare and the politics of the 70s.
In Lord of the Flies William Golding asks us to consider just how thin the veneer of civilization really is? Left alone on the island without a leader, the boys in the story revert to a primitive survival-of-the-fittest state. Is that us in 2020? At the beginning of the current campaign there was consensus among Democrats – defeat Trump – but the situation has changed. Today the goal remains, but there is no consensus on the who or how. Are we morphing into the same rudderless selfish state as the boys in Lord of the Flies?
In the wake of his impeachment, loyalty to the Bully-in-Chief has become the White House litmus test. His truth is the truth of Narcissus. He lies at every juncture. He’s made the rich richer and the poor poorer. The homeless are everywhere. The country is in deep debt. Mean-spirits dictate policy and the Attorney General sees no limits to executive power. We have abandoned our friends and alliances in favor of an isolated nationalism where inequality is exaggerated and opportunity denied those who need it most.
It feels odd to be so overtly political. I was always happy to enjoy the ride as a privileged American. I paid attention but didn’t wade in the deep waters. It even seems odd to frame these remarks as political. I love American history and this seems more like an historical moment than a political one. The 2020 election will be a turning point. Will we recommit to the framers’ democratic ideal or let tribal rivalries dictate our future? Either way, it’s a reminder that democracy is messy. There are no Jeffersons or Adams on the debate stages today, but the principles they argued for are the same principles I hope will define America’s future – fairness, honesty, good intentions, and the welfare of All our citizens.