Social, economic and political threats as great as those that made headlines in the just-concluded 2016 presidential campaigns would almost surely have started a bloody revolution if they had crashed into the public consciousness a century and a half ago. So much verbal vitriol was thrown by Donald Trump that I was much relieved when, in his acceptance speech as president-elect, he emphasized the need for reconciliation and national unity. I sincerely hope that he can put aside the poisonous persona of his campaign and, that done, his presidency proves to be a successful contributor to the American Dream.
This time the National Guard didn’t need to be called out, but months before the election it was clear that irate people in the lower and middle income brackets, the unemployed and the veterans, had spoken. They had done so, loudly, by voting their enthusiasm for an angry-sounding and explosive showman who whipped up their wrath with his campaigns. It is now starkly plain that their anger was shared by a large segment of the population whose discontent had been glossed over or ignored by the usual political movers and shakers. Which was what they had done, in large part, until the campaign rhetoric woke them up.
“The 2016 campaign has brought to the surface the despair and rage of poor and middle-class Americans who say their government has done little to ease the burdens that recession, technological change, foreign competition and war have heaped on their families,” the New York Times editorial board declared.
Trump’s successful campaign forced affluent America to recognize the plight of these poor and middle-class families, and from the tenor of his speeches those in the war zones of American poverty could imagine that they had found a powerful advocate who would do something worthwhile to improve their lot.
Clearly not enough of Washington’s influential elite took much interest when, a year ago, the Pew Research Center reported that among 6,000 Americans surveyed, “just 19% say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century.” That’s less than one in five! Apparently government still didn’t get the message that public trust had been moving downhill since the onset of the Iraq war, when nearly 50% — itself hardly an encouraging percentage — expressed that much trust in government. It is a public disgrace that partisan strife in Congress has been time and time again contributed to this mistrust while using up time that was sorely needed to solve greater problems. Ironically Trump’s campaign benefited from public distrust of established government; now he and his party will have to take a leadership position in the job of earning and rebuilding it.
It’s been recognized for a while that the biggest question facing America after the 2016 general election would be, “Can we get America together again?” Both presidential candidates seem to agree that the answer is Yes. Clearly it will take time and will not be an easy matter, but sometime soon the country needs visible, transparent evidence that it has started. We must hope that Trump will mend fences with the rest of the GOP and be able to choose an expert cabinet and other advisers whose advice he will respect. Those burned by declamations made by the angry Trump and worry about his career history also must hope that he can stick with the more amiable personality transformation he presented on election night, though doubters ask me, “How easy will it be for a 70-year-old to change his ways?”
We have reason for optimism. Despite campaign rhetoric to the contrary, America is a great country, now, with a rich heritage that has made it quite capable of healing fractures in its varied communities. Though some measure of unrest will continue, it will subside, and trust will gradually be regained, so long as a responsible government writes and carries out believable action plans that will germinate a new sense of well-being and greater confidence for the future.
Positive change will happen as more thoroughly honest, future-conscious, action-oriented thought makes its way into the national debate through the action of honorable politicians who listen to the public voice and care enough about it to act. These leaders also need to foresee new issues that are on the horizon. And they must be possessed of an independent determination to drive forward toward lasting solutions, unfettered by special interests. On the domestic front, transformation will require citizen support for worthwhile new legislation regardless of which political party is the sponsor. Importantly, it will grow with the increase of old-fashioned values like family togetherness, neighborliness, conversation, and a Golden Rule that is not soiled by racialism, prejudice, and bigotry. In this way the States, at the same time that they protect and encourage free and respectful speech, will become steadily more United.
First, the challenges to government. It will take bipartisan agreement to reform the tax code, the medical, health care and welfare systems, subsidies, immigration, and unhelpful but entrenched political practices. It will also take serious discussion, and action, on other large-scale issues ranging from reforms in the banking system to the energy production/pollution control mismatch and the adoption of large-scale, connected employment and public works programs. Bipartisan agreement is a key term here. It must return to Congress after years of dogged, orchestrated refusals to cooperate. The federal government must no longer cripple itself with behavior – personal or institutional — that in another context would be childish but which in political context is both disrespectful and harmful to the nation.
Likewise there are challenges to all the men, women, and youth who together form the nation’s core. In our democratic society, lawmakers and policymakers need support and communication from citizens (that means us) if they are to accomplish substantial change. Within ourselves we will also need to cultivate more political understanding, coupled with patience — even if it means we have to moderate some of our taste for material assets and our distaste for officialdom. This will take optimism, hope, communication, patriotism, and a lot of compassion between social (including political) groupings. It will not produce a new American utopia. There can be no schedule for completion of such an initiative. But it will be a thoroughly good process that will become increasingly agreeable to its participants.
I am not sure whether the first, legislative/organizational parts of this list are more difficult or less difficult than the more sociological/ethical parts. In fact the two are interleaved. The dream of blending them can be made to work. This would result in an America that is greater, happier, and more sure of itself, than it has been since the end of World War II. Let’s go there.
- “We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason.” – historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1830