Constitutional Patriotism and America’s Shame

This article originally appeared on Public Seminar and has been republished here with their kind permission.

View Through Torn Flag (Credit: Karen Axelrad, Flickr)
View Through Torn Flag (Credit: Karen Axelrad, Flickr)

America: we need to talk. And we are not going to like what we hear. But avoiding hearing what we don’t like to hear is what has brought us to a place where nearly the entire political and media establishment agree is a low point in the moral and intellectual character of American politics.

The conversation, it seems to me, we need most to have, and of which we seem least capable of having, is not so much about the election or its results, but rather about what makes it impossible for people who voted differently Tuesday, and all the people who didn’t vote at all (something like 45% of those eligible), to speak with one another about the election and its results.  We need to speak about our shame — and by “our” shame, I mean America’s shame. Not the shame that some of us cast upon others of us, and not the shame that some certain demographic ought to feel before the just and justified “elite” that is moral and intelligent enough to cast blame.

No, this is America’s shame, and it belongs to each of us and to all of us in exactly the same magical “supervening” way that (in one of Plato’s favorite images to describe part/whole relations) the wind is in every part of the sail and yet in no single part of the sail at all. Said shame rests not in having elected Donald J. Trump president, but rather in the thorough going disintegration of our political process that made his candidacy a serious possibility in the first place. And this shame belongs to us, as Americans, not only those Americans who voted for the President-Elect.

Having thus “exonerated” Trump or his voters from any special responsibility for our shame, let me make clear that this doesn’t mean that I don’t profoundly disagree with the vote for Trump, don’t find him a historically unqualified candidate for the Presidency, or don’t believe that in voting for Trump those who did so not only made a great error, but also rebuked the pluralistic and outward-looking society I consider to be the essence of my homeland. No.  Let me be quite clear: I could hardly disagree more than I do with someone who voted for Trump — whatever their reasons.  Trump is a shockingly unqualified holder of his title. And I do consider his election a rebuke of everything I hold dear about America.

Yet, I find in all that nothing shameful. Just as I could not in good conscience say that there was anything shameful in having voted for Ronald Reagan or for George W. Bush, however much I disagreed with someone who did. And just as I would demand that my fellow citizens — whatever their beliefs — respect, and never find shame in, my having voted for the representatives I have supported, I cannot and I do not find shame in voting for Donald J. Trump, however incompetent I hold him to be and however abhorrent I find his main campaign promises. After all, profound disagreements about electoral politics and even about core values are themselves integral to being a constitutional patriot, as are disagreements about in which language such disagreements can be expressed (so long as it is not abusive or otherwise illegal). Trump’s dangerous lack of qualifications for his new job is frightening, perhaps, if you like, embarrassing, but it is not shameful.

So in what does our — collective — shame reside? It consists in the fact that the rural/urban divide we have always known, and which has been the single greatest determinant of our partisan politics since the early days of the Republic, is threatening once again to override the genius of the constitutional order. This order ought to be the source of pride in being American and thus most opposed to our unfolding American shame.

We can see the shame, for instance, in the increasing calls to abolish the Electoral College. I know that this can feel like justice for those of us who have seen the candidate we supported/voted for win the popular vote yet lose the presidency twice in the past five election cycles. But the College exists predominantly in order to prevent exactly what would have happened in this election had there not been an Electoral College. Yes, I know it was instituted in part because initially it was a way, like the election of the Senate through the state legislatures (subsequently amended) to insulate the highest levels of governance from direct election, and also in part because it was a demand of the slave-holding states to prevent the President being elected without the support of the majority within any slave state. But neither of these were the central motivation. No, the central motivation was to prevent what would have otherwise happened this week: the election of a President solely on the basis of support in the big cities and without a coalition of support in less populous areas and with broader geographic appeal. Maybe that arrangement is unjust; surely it is not democratic. But it is, to use a word the founders appreciated, expedient. It is necessary to avoid civic disintegration; exactly the kind of disintegration that has been steadily progressing in my lifetime, and in which rests our great shame in our immediate moment.

I know many of my friends have justified worries about what new and completely unnecessary challenges the new administration will bring them in their daily lives, and that many others are horrified by the thought that this administration will be slow to condemn, or will fail to condemn, or even will directly or indirectly support, the hate speech we have already seen follow the election results. And I am sure that to them — and not only to them — my response to the events of this week will seem like delusion or betrayal, or both. I can respect that. But I tell them, and “liberal” or “progressive” America, that refusing to engage with what is often justified anger resting behind Tuesday’s results does not somehow keep us pure of the institutional racism and sexism and the broader politics of exclusion that support the hateful beliefs and discriminatory practices that are both the agents and the results of such institutional subordination.

Rather, we need to avoid holding our heads high and our noses tight to avoid the stench so many of us feel wafting in from the less populated and less worldly counties that constitute the 94% of the land mass of the United States. We never or rarely visit and/or understand these areas. Avoiding so much of our country serves only to isolate Americans from one another and America as a whole from its deeply flawed, but uniquely ingenuous constitutional mechanisms that make the compromise that is necessary for limited government within a population that embraces radical pluralism in ethnic and confessional identities. For instance, such willful ignorance will blind us to the fact that if we were living in such a county we would take the call to banish the Electoral College for what it is: an attempt to effectively disenfranchise rural voters. Which is, truly, a shame. For these mechanisms are resilient but fragile and without them in place to enforce compromise among those who share deep disagreements like those displayed these past months during this most unfortunate electoral cycle, the whole would not hold.

Note that I say “share.” We “share” these differences as America. The existence of the Union is predicated on these differences and disagreements. We should not hold our ears when people link globalization and minority rights. Rather we must clear arguments that could possibly be persuasive or seek out political programs that could seem worth supporting to someone who has experienced 40 years of economic globalization and the post-industrial economy from the perspective of a rural America that faces crumbling infrastructure, non-existent public investment, rampant underemployment, and self-congratulatory moral condemnation from the urban elites. This is, quite literally, a shame.

But let me end with the first half of my title and not the second. Today, as we commemorate the end of the First World War, and the service so many of our ancestors contributed to the perseverance of our deeply-flawed constitution, let us recognize in each other our shared commitment to a pair of principles — equity and justice — not yet realized but impossible to realize without compromise across our greatest divides: the ideological; the ethnic and racial; the religious; and, I would say above all, the rural/urban. Paraphrasing the argument Barack Obama made in 2004, effectively launching his national political career, there’s nothing we can accomplish if we don’t bridge those divides, but there’s also nothing we can’t accomplish if we do. It may seem like unworldly nonsense to suggest we have something to talk about today, but I say it is unworldly nonsense to believe that any kind of progress, or even any kind of future, is possible if we don’t.


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