A Referendum on the Soul of America

A Referendum on the Soul of America October 13, 2020

Good people sometimes do bad things.

We make mistakes. We make decisions based on bad information. We jump to conclusions. We react from a place of fear or anger and we do things that are not in alignment with our values.

Doing bad things doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It means we’re human.

Over time, though, we start to build a track record. If we do something that’s so bad it can’t be classified as a mere mistake, what do we do next? If we acknowledge it, learn from it, and try to fix it we’re doing well.

If we keep doing the same bad thing over and over again – whether from cruelty, apathy, or stubbornness – then maybe we are bad people.

Our actions over time determine our character… and our destiny.

America did something bad in 2016

What is true of individuals is often true of families, groups, organizations, and nations.

In 2016 the United States of America did something very bad. We elected Donald Trump President.

Yes, it’s more complicated than that. Hillary Clinton got 3 million more votes, but because of the Electoral College, Trump won the election. Voter suppression, foreign influence, and especially FBI Director James Comey’s botched investigation into the e-mail controversy all played a part in the outcome. So did some very questionable strategic decisions by the Clinton campaign. There is no single reason why Trump won.

At this point, why Trump won in 2016 is no longer relevant. What’s important is that he did win.

And the past four years have clearly shown that the United States did something very bad.

Bad people or people who made a mistake?

I have a good friend who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. At the time, he said “I want change.” He believed Trump would cut taxes, bring back manufacturing jobs, and increase infrastructure spending (he got one out of three). Supreme Court appointments and Trump’s decidedly unpresidential behavior weren’t important to him.

63 million people voted for Trump in 2016. They aren’t all racists, sexists, and xenophobes, any more than the 66 million of us who voted for Hillary are big Wall Street supporters.

I’m guessing about a third of those Trump voters are racists, sexists, xenophobes, and such. They see how Trump has governed and they like it. They want order at the expense of justice, and they want refugees treated so cruelly they don’t try to come to this country no matter how bad things are where they are. Some of them are “very fine people” who kill protesters with cars and try to put women and minorities “in their place.”

Those people are part of America, but they do not define the essence of America.

Unless the rest of us allow them to do so.

America has made progress, but now we’re going backward

I have friends who say “America was never good.” They point to the genocide of Native Americans, slavery and the three-fifths rule, Jim Crow, wars of empire, and still being the only first world country that doesn’t offer universal health care in one form or another.

They’re not wrong. We need to listen to people who tell inconvenient truths, rather than suppressing them in the name of patriotism or heritage.

But that’s not all America is.

America is also abolition and a Civil War to end slavery and preserve the Union. It’s the women’s suffrage movement and the women’s rights movement. It’s Brown vs. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Stonewall and Obergefell.

It’s the idea that everyone has certain inalienable rights, and the on-going journey to fully embody that idea.

It’s not about whether we as a nation are “good” or “bad.” Rather, it’s about whether we as a nation are becoming better than we were before.

History shows we’ve made progress, though we still have far to go.

But progress is not inevitable. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said “it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

And progress can be reversed.

A President that rejects science and supports white supremacists

Immigration is a complicated issue, and the United States has always debated who should be allowed to come to this country and under what conditions. But over the last four years we’ve seen a particular callousness and cruelty toward refugees.

Covid-19 has spread across the whole world, and the science is still not clear as to the best approach to minimizing its impact. But has Trump denied the reality of Covid, ignored its effects, and refused to model responsible behavior. His actions – and lack of action – led to thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Trump presidency is the increased public presence of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and groups like the Proud Boys and QAnon – people Trump refuses to condemn because “they like me very much, which I appreciate.

So much of the criticism of Trump focuses on him and his truly vile personal conduct. That’s understandable – it’s really unavoidable. But his policies are also bad. We’ve seen an effort to dismantle public education, to gut environmental regulations and to deny the reality of climate change, to remove legal protections for LGBTQ people, and to pack the courts with judges and justices who have no respect for individual rights or limitations on corporate power.

The past four years haven’t been a normal “pendulum” swinging back to the right after eight years of an Democratic presidency. That’s what we would have had if we had elected Kasich or Rubio or Jeb Bush. This has been a demolition of American institutions and a cult of personality usually reserved for dictatorships.

And we’ve seen it all, day in and day out. We know exactly who and what Donald Trump is.

Do we fix our mistakes or repeat them?

We all do bad things from time to time. Sometimes we make mistakes. Other times we act out of fear or anger and we do things that are not in alignment with our values. Doing bad things doesn’t mean we’re bad people.

Unless we do them over and over again.

Our actions over time determine our character, and our destiny.

This is true for individuals, and it’s true for nations.

Some Trump supporters voted for him because they’re bad people who like the bad things he does. But I’m convinced most people who voted for Trump simply made a mistake. They had been ignored by the mainstream and they wanted to send a message. They had a problem and they thought Trump would fix it. Or they bought into the idea that “they’re all the same” and they didn’t like Hillary, so why not vote for Trump.

I campaigned against Trump for all of 2016 and even I didn’t fully appreciate how bad he would be. I can’t fault people who have a generally conservative orientation for voting for Trump because he was the Republican nominee and they usually vote for Republicans.

But now we know how bad Trump is as President.

Now America knows we made a collective mistake.

It is not our mistakes that define us, but how we respond to our mistakes.

Joe Biden is not a savior

Let’s be clear about one thing: Joe Biden is not a savior. Electing Joe Biden President will not redeem America.

Electing Joe Biden means America is capable of being redeemed.

Joe Biden is a career politician who respects the institutions of American government – and who knows how they work.

He’s made mistakes – he helped pass some laws that did more harm than good. But looking at how he served as Vice President, and at his campaign this year, I’m convinced he’s learned from those mistakes and he won’t repeat them.

Mainly, Joe Biden has compassion for other people. Donald Trump does not.

A referendum on the soul of America

I’ve seen some people complaining that every Presidential election is billed as “the most important election of our lifetime.” Obviously, most years that’s not true. But occasionally it is.

I don’t know if this is the most important election of our lifetime or not.

I do know this is a referendum on the soul of America.

As a nation, we made a mistake in 2016 – a very bad, very harmful mistake. Now we have an opportunity to acknowledge that mistake and begin the process of fixing it.

We also have the opportunity to do the same thing again. Except if we re-elect Donald Trump knowing what we now know about him with certainty, it can’t be considered a mistake.

Our actions over time determine our character.

And our destiny.

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