When it comes to the impeachment proceedings, the Democrats have drawn a bad hand. Attempting to move the electorate toward support for removing the president during the holiday season, between Thanksgiving and the New Year, may be an impossible task. As go voter’s opinions and attention spans, so go the members of the Senate in an impeachment trial.
The gratitude of Thanksgiving, joy of giving at Christmas and Hanukkah and personal reflection in the new year do not encourage the mindset that is needed to punish the president for his conduct. It is difficult to watch multiple holiday movies and specials on redemption and second chances and then to send the president packing back to Trump Tower.
On the other hand, perhaps this same six week period of holiday cheer, family sharing, spiritual renewal and resolutions for self-improvement is the perfect time to reset the national mood toward a commitment of reconciliation with those we disagree. A bit of spiking the eggnog with tolerance and understanding.
With this thought in mind, I have reviewed the literature of several well-known philosophers, educators and political commentators in search of some answers. Does it make sense to articulate a common creed, a national project that all Americans believe in? Is it within our better nature for all of us to give something of value to members of the other tribe with whom we so vehemently disagree? Is the traditional model of representative democracy still possible in America?
First, consider the gratitude of Thanksgiving where we often take time to remember the goodness that life has bestowed upon us. Conservative historian David Kennedy has some interesting thoughts on developing an “American Creed” for which we can all be grateful (WSJ Weekend Interview, Nov. 30, 2019). He believes that diverse societies like the United States require stories and myths to articulate what we all have in common. He laments that many historians have forgotten this point by celebrating differences rather than what the nation is working toward collectively.
Professor Kennedy scolds Trump supporters who have forgotten that America’s absorption of immigrants has always been exceptional throughout our history. He likewise criticizes liberal thought for placing cultural differences on a pedestal rather than supporting assimilation of new Americans. He also takes a swing at progressives by pointing out that the American Creed has always been resistant to socialism.
In the interest of reconciliation and gratitude, Kennedy would emphasize return to a master narrative about American history that embodies “the perfection of the idea of democracy in this country. The process was incremental, slow and back and forth, but it gave Americans a way to talk about their national project.”
Second, consider the joy of giving over the holidays as a platform for reducing animosity and disrespect for those with opposing political views. Conservative commentator George Will’s political philosophy as espoused in his recent book, “The Conservative Sensibility,” is a good place to start.
Will believes that our founders’ vision was one of limited government, separation of powers, maximal federalism and inviolable individual freedom. Conservatives have given us the impulses to keep politics in its place and religion outside of government. We should all welcome the conservative gift of giving American society adequate time to breathe, to live and innovate on its own, which gives the nation a healthy ballast. It would be well for progressives to remember that our most radical movements for change, including suffrage, civil rights and sexual freedom, all invoked conservative expressions of America’s founding ideals, found in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, rather than rejecting them.
On the opposite side of the political spectrum, liberals have many gifts to offer their conservative counterparts. Republicans would do well to review recent history when many Democrats under President Woodrow Wilson were as nativist as Trump Republicans are today. After Wilson, Democrats finally changed their policies and began inviting immigrants into the party. After 1932, Democrats held the White House for five terms, the most dominate run in American history. There are many Latin and Asian immigrants who believe in conservative values, if the Republican Party gives them the chance to join the American experience.
John McGowan, distinguished professor and author of “American Liberalism: An Interpretation of Our Time (2007),” offers up several endearing liberal gifts for all of us to enjoy this year: trust in a constitutionally established rule of law, a conviction that modern societies are irreducibly plural, the promotion of a diverse civil society, and a reliance on public debate and deliberation to influence others’ opinions and actions.
Lastly, let us consider the reflection that comes with the new year. Ronald Dworkin, among the world’s leading legal and political philosophers, called for a new political debate in his short 2006 treatise, “Is Democracy Possible Here?” Dworkin was concerned with the animosity and lack of civil political argument that existed during the presidency of George W. Bush. He would not live to experience the Trump years.
Dworkin’s goal was to develop baseline precepts that all political actors could both agree and reflect on before making their separate arguments on the issues facing America. As with many other observers, he understood the tension between liberal views on equality and conservative views on liberty. He did not believe these two founding principles were incompatible.
Dworkin’s two basic beliefs of human dignity are that each human life has a special kind of objective value (equality), and each person has a special responsibility for realizing the success of his own life (liberty).
Assuming that all of us can agree on these points, liberals and conservatives can each seek to build well-reasoned arguments on taxation, human rights, foreign aid, the environment, the role of religion and abortion. While Dworkin takes the liberal position and frames his analysis accordingly, he issues a challenge for conservative thinkers and policy makers to do the same.
Happy holidays to the readers of the Observer-Reporter. May you all find abundant rational political discourse in 2020.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.