[published Thanksgiving week, 2017]
It is natural to take for granted those good things that, in one’s experience, have always been there. We take for granted that we’ll have good air to breathe and water to drink. Most of the time we can take for granted that when we flip the switch, the electricity will be there to light the room.
Thanksgiving is a time when we are encouraged not to take our blessings for granted.
This moment in American history teaches a similar lesson, as it brings home to us how dangerous it can be not to recognize and appreciate those things on which the good in our lives depends.
It has been easy for those of us who have grown up in America –especially during the decades following World War II – to assume that this America in which we have made our lives would always be free, reasonably just, and well-ordered. It felt like our birthright.
Too little did we bother to understand the foundations on which that well-functioning democracy rested. Too much we took for granted all the good things our forebears –over the many generations — worked so hard to construct so that decent and peaceful human life would be possible. Things like:
- government integrity in communicating with its citizens,
- the rule of law, and a respect for maintaining the integrity and health of the Constitution of the United States, in letter and in spirit;
- a degree of civility and mutual respect in the relationship between competing political parties (in Congress and among the citizenry);
- the truth generally prevailing over lies in our public discourse;
- governing powers having some sense of responsibility to serve the common good (not just fighting for partisan advantage);
- universal appreciation of the role in our democracy of a free press;
- a devotion to the idea that the government exists for the people, and that every American citizen should have an equal voice.
Not understanding how deeply we depended on such virtues in our institutions and our people, too many of us failed to notice the seriousness of the assault upon them being launched by a political force that, over the course of a generation, was increasingly taking over one of America’s great political parties.
As one of America’s great political parties was being taken over by a destructive and amoral force, too few of us noticed the transformation, or realized its gravity. Most of America took little notice of the blows being struck against the norms of American democracy by a force that:
- sought to destroy the presidencies of the opposing parties;
- chose (in 2002) to cast aside a precious national unity in order to gain more partisan power;
- practiced torture at the highest levels;
- obstructed the legislative process — across the board – showing indifference to the good of the nation — again as part of a strategy for gaining power;
- stole a Supreme Court seat by means of an unprecedented abuse of its power, in clear violation of the spirit of the Constitution;
- handed the people’s rightful power over to the plutocracy, in the Congress and with decisions like Citizens United.
This taking our American blessings for granted seems to have been a big part of the reason Liberal America mostly slept through this years-long assault on our birthright: Who knew that our blessings rest on all the achievements bequeathed to us by our founders and the generations since? Who knew that what had made this nation the world’s most admired nation, during the years of our coming of age, could be taken away?
But now people have awakened.
Realizing how essential these democratic norms and institutions are to the good life we have been privileged to live, and how possible it is to lose all of that, Americans are at last rising up. They are speaking out, and acting, to defend what they now see must be cherished—and defended.
And this may be the silver lining of the national crisis we face in this Age of Trump.
Trump’s presidency has at last made visible and unmistakable the uprooting of our political affairs from the foundations our founders gave us, putting our future up for grabs. But even as that instability threatens further breakdown and loss, it also creates the opportunity to strengthen and to restore what has been broken.
And that is what we see large swath of America – aligning against this destructive president — rising to achieve.
For each way that Trump assaults the standards and norms that have upheld the American democratic achievement – with his lies, his attempts to enlist the Justice system as a servant to his own power, his using his public trust to enrich himself, his dismantling of programs and agencies that protect the public interest, his embrace of the kinds of gangster regimes (Russia, Turkey, Philippines) that America has always stood against – people across the nation have been standing up to give voice to those basic American values that we too long took for granted.
In our institutions (including the courts and the news media) and the citizenry (in the streets and in the voting booths), something like the “Spirit of ‘76” is being rekindled as people are inspired to stand up for those sacred American values on which the hope of “liberty and justice for all” has rested.
History often deals us situations that we really, really would rather not have to deal with. We Americans of this era have had it rather good, by historical standards. But now, we confront the reality that we have drifted into some dangerous and uncharted waters. The challenge is to summon understanding, inspiration, and creativity to turn these times of danger into times of healing and of progress into something better.
Sometimes, the work of Thanksgiving is not just to be grateful for our blessings, but to be willing to fight to defend what has conferred so many of those blessings upon us.