The Best Thing I See All Year
By Scott Jennings
For the last couple of years, I’ve had the honor of spending the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. My son, Everett the Cub Scout, joins hundreds of other Scouts who, in a matter of minutes, sweep across the sacred field placing fourteen thousand American flags on the graves of resting heroes. It is a testament to how quickly things happen when people join in common purpose.
And that is the story of America, a nation founded by people of common purpose who didn’t always agree with each other but who understood one important thing – they were all in it together. As Benjamin Franklin put it just before signing the Declaration of Independence: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
For Franklin and cohorts, failure to set aside regional or tribal differences would have resulted in death. And while today we face less dire consequences, the debilitating political fracture costing us our common purpose indeed threatens our national prospects. We appear to have forgotten that we, as Americans, are all in this together, a nation succumbing to an epidemic of mistrust.
We are all collectively charged with keeping alive the tree of liberty, so that each subsequent generation may enjoy its fruits. We are all collectively charged with honoring our Constitution, and protecting the vibrancy of a culture where people are free to speak their minds and elect governments that reflect our national will.
That attitude seems far removed from the political unraveling witnessed each night on our television screens. The choke slamming of a reporter by a congressional candidate in Montana (and the disgusting rush by some to justify it) was but the latest example of politics stretching us to the psychological breaking point. Frankly, it surprises me that there aren’t more Greg Gianforte-style snaps, especially in off-the-beaten-path campaigns that suddenly become the object of crushing money and media. Who expects to be dropped into a $20 million pressure cooker when they file their candidate papers in Montana?
This does not excuse his behavior nor his campaign’s laughable explanation of it. Far from it. But as we seek to understand where we are as a democracy it is important to explore the context in which Gianforte snapped, because it is the same political environment that led college liberals to riot and rampage in Berkeley and Middlebury.
These dramatic and unfortunate snappenings aren’t confined to one ideology. People are unraveling across the political spectrum.
That is not to say our nation cannot handle vigorous debate, the ridiculous creation of sanitized “safe spaces” on college campuses notwithstanding. America has always enjoyed and benefited from robust political discourse, raucous campaigns, and a love of fighting each other to the rhetorical death. But when the final words have landed and the votes tallied, we have, heretofore, come together as Americans to respect the outcome. And we have usually, and collectively, harbored more respect than contempt for people who mustered the courage to thrust themselves into “the arena,” as President Teddy Roosevelt called it, even if they hold views different from our own.
The comradery of being Americans has long outweighed our personal disdain for a political opponent’s views. Have we lost this uniquely American trait? Is our politics “beyond broken,” as Meet the Press host Chuck Todd tweeted?
It may be that collapsing trust in the institutions that create the boundaries of our democracy is breaking our politics, especially the declining trust we have in the media to tell us the truth. It is true that most members of the mainstream media live in an urban bubble, making it hard for them to understand non-urban America. Conservatives, who tend to live in non-urban areas outside those bubbles, mistrust the media because they, with good reason, see evidence of an institutional bias against the candidates they prefer.
These groups, urban and rural but Americans all, don’t understand each other and no longer trust each other. A corrosive tribalism has taken root. General James Mattis, now Secretary of Defense, was asked by The New Yorker “what worried him most in his new position.” His answer was haunting:
“The lack of political unity in America. The lack of a fundamental friendliness. It seems like an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether it be from organized religion or from local community school districts or from their governments…If you lose any sense of being part of something bigger, then why should you care about your fellow man?”
The mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons who put up the Memorial Day flags reminded me that we are all in this together, just as the soldiers under the gravestones were as they waged our nation’s battles.
We should honor their sacrifice by remembering that no matter how personally enraged we are by politics, we are all in this together. We aren’t supposed to be a collection of tribes destined to mistrust, hate, or ignore each other. We are one tribe—an American tribe—fully capable of embracing debate and differences within while showing unified strength to the rest of the world.
The sooner we start acting like it again, the better.