How to Make America Great
The drama of presidential politics has overwhelmed the country this year, giving rise to the hope or fear that one candidate or another can single-handedly transform American society. Some look for a savior. Their opponents fear a dictatorship, because tearing up the Constitution would seem to be the only way to realize the dream of a final solution to our woes.
Consider that American politics is frustrating by design. Maybe Congressional gridlock and obstruction have reached an extreme, but even that problem is largely allowed by our Constitution, which creates and destroys power on a regular basis through elections, and divides power in such a way that one branch of government regularly imposes limits on the reach of another. All of this is designed to promote a third way, namely, compromise.
Compromise has become something of a dirty word among conservatives and progressives alike. Senator Ted Cruz is famous for refusing to participate in any legislative deal with President Obama. As candidates, both he and Donald Trump claim they will refuse to compromise on any of their core issues. They represent the presidency as a grim dictatorship. Congress doesn’t exist for them, let alone the Supreme Court. On the left, Bernie Sanders presents a similarly uncompromising description of the problem with Washington, DC. His argument is that Washington politicians are owned by big business, especially by financial institutions. He envisions a political revolution, as if this election could usher in a new progressive era by giving social Democrats a Congressional majority. Sanders’ plan, like Trump’s, depends on a fantasy of ideological dominance that our system of government is designed to frustrate and defeat.
It’s fashionable to claim that communication is impossible because our opponents can’t be trusted. When the stakes were much higher than we can easily imagine, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention found ways to overcome their differences, precisely because they recognized that the other, much worse choice was to resign themselves to a government based on force. The central point of our Constitution is to make it impossible for one forceful leader to decide important matters for the rest of us. The promoters of the Constitution began by asking whether it was even possible to found a nation on the will of the governed. This concern is expressed in the Federalist Papers:
it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.
To maintain our constitutional tradition of deciding our own fate as a people, we need places for dialogue, candid conversations in which “talking points” fall away. That’s a difficult thing, because it requires admitting our own limitations and tolerating uncertainty, but it is the only thing that can make America great. It isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be easy. Folding your arms in anger and doing nothing is easy and requires no political skill. Violence is easy. Compromise, on the other hand, is hard work, the kind of work that we pay actual working politicians to do. To look for a savior is to ask for your own destruction. Instead, take a good look at your neighbors and coworkers. They are all the help you get – and all you need.