Over the past two years, I have been giving more thought than ever to what it means to be an American. The reasons for that are obvious. These are unprecedented times. But I’d like to share a few thoughts that I’ve had about my American identity and what that means moving forward. I don’t like to discuss politics too much on this blog for a number of reasons. But sometimes it’s too important to ignore. This is one of those times.
As far as childhood in America (or anywhere else!) goes, I was far luckier than most. I never wondered whether there would be someone to take care of me when I got home from school, or where I would sleep, or where my next meal would come from. When I got sick, I knew that I’d be taken to the doctor and I’d get medicine that would make me feel better. I didn’t even think about random acts of senseless violence. When I started school I worried about being separated from my mom for a whole day. I worried about whether I’d make friends with the other kids in my class. I didn’t worry about mass shootings.
I attended a Quaker school in elementary school. No I’m not a Quaker and neither is my family. Nor were most of the families who sent their children there. The student body was made up of a diverse population, ethnically, racially, and religiously. My parents felt that such an environment would teach me to appreciate a diverse, inclusive culture and it did. Most of the Quaker influence in our education involved learning how to be “friends.” That means the obvious of course, how to be there for your friends, help them when they’re sad, celebrate with them when they’re happy. But it also meant learning to get along with people you may not like. Being kind to people, even when you think they don’t deserve it. I think that attitude made me a better person.
The Quaker perspective influenced how we looked at history in school. Quakers were dedicated abolitionists, and we learned that our nation was founded on a contradictory set of dual ideals. There were the high minded ideas of equality and on which our constitution is based, but those were tainted by the fact that they were written by slave owners who also wrote slavery into the fabric of society. So in school we learned that our role as Americans meant trying to create a society that lived up to those ideals, while being aware that there were remnants of that original sin still in our system. We learned that the effects of slavery were felt long after slavery ended, with segregation and laws that kept power squarely in the hands of white Americans. We revered the memory of the civil rights leaders who practiced nonviolent resistance (Quakers are very big on pacifism) and brought about real change in that way. We learned the happy, fictitious Thanksgiving story, but we also learned that European settlers were dishonest and treated the indigenous population badly. Being educated in this school gave me the idea that I lived in a good country but a flawed one that was striving to be better than it’s troubling history.
I also remember asking my mom about political parties after hearing something about them on the radio in the car. I must have been about five years old or so at the time. My mom explained that everyone in America wanted a better future, but they didn’t always agree on how to go about creating that. The two parties, Democrats and Republicans, had different ideas about how to make the world a better place, and often disagreed. Neither was right or wrong or better or worse. Sometimes one would be right and the other wrong, and sometimes vice versa. But we all shared common values, such as a belief in free speech, due process, equal protection under the law, etc.
So that’s the perspective that I had on my country as a child. It was a perspective that allowed me to be proud of being an American, because being an American meant learning from past mistakes and trying do better in the future.
Of course as I grew up and became part of the world, things changed. Some of what changed was me. I was more able to understand and appreciate nuance. I was able to evaluate things critically for myself. But some of what changed was the country. I was still a kid when the rhetoric in the US became more vitriolic, and the tone of politics grew divisive. I found myself taking a side that I felt reflected my personal values. But I felt that I could still respect people who felt differently. I always identified as a Democrat but I had friends who were all over the political spectrum.
Do I still respect people who disagree with me on certain issues? It depends on the issue. I can absolutely still respect and like someone with whom I disagree about how much a corporation that makes X in profit should pay in taxes, or whether a building in city limits can exceed a certain height. But if we disagree about who counts as a human being, I can’t respect that.
What I’ve seen over the past few years is the notion that only certain people should count as “Americans.” This is the notion that only those who are accepted under this label are entitled to due process and equal protection. It is also the notion that some (wealthy white men primarily) are actually entitled to special treatment, so that the laws which are set to protect us all, don’t apply to them. That is something that I cannot accept, because it infringes on the safety and rights of too many people.
Some of those people are Americans whether or not the alt-right want to think of them that way: they were born here, or are naturalized citizens. They contribute to society in important ways. They pay taxes and are therefor entitled to protection and representation. Others are not Americans. They live elsewhere in the world but are still affected by the decisions that are made in the United States. They are trying to live their own lives in their own countries, where they are affected by US action (or lack thereof) on climate change. They breathe the air and drink the water that may not be clean. As a result they may become refugees. That’s why an “America First” way of thinking isn’t practical. America is not the only country in the world, but it is a large and powerful one, and our actions affect what happens in other countries. What happens in those other counties then affects us.
Whatever you may think of the two parties in the US historically, this election is not about that. Over the past two years, Republicans have proved themselves unwilling or incapable of curbing Trump’s divisive, incendiary rhetoric, even when that rhetoric attacks the values that we all share.
There is so much that I want to discuss here that I don’t have the time or the space to address. But I am begging my fellow Americans to think about what their vote means. Maybe you’ll be voting blue on Tuesday just like you’ve always done. Maybe you’re historically a Republican or an Independent. If that is the case I implore you to look at the bigger picture. I know some people who voted for Trump in 2016, thinking of it as a vote for the Republican party rather than a vote for Donald Trump. But the Republican party as it is today is not the party of Reagan and is certainly not the party of Lincoln. It is the party of Trump. I hope that changes, because I think that having two (or more) healthy parties is crucial to a functioning democracy. But if the GOP remains the majority in both the House and the Senate that’s not going to happen. Instead, I fear that we will be closer to a dictatorship under Donald Trump. He will see a midterm win as an endorsement of some of his most heinous behavior, and that behavior will continue and perhaps worsen. However, if Democrats can regain some power, we will have more of a balance. That balance creates accountability for everyone in government. That is something that we should all want.
If you are a Democrat or a Republican/Independent and you plan to vote Democratic this election, please make sure you VOTE! We are the majority in this country and when we vote, we win. In a perfect world we would be inspired by candidates in every election. Maybe you are inspired by a candidate in this election, and if so, that’s great. But if not, you still have to vote. Vote for a candidate that you feel will protect your rights and listen to your voice. You may not agree with that candidate on every issue, but that doesn’t mean you get a pass.
We are all morally obliged to vote on Tuesday. Do it for yourself. Do it for your loved ones. Do it for our planet. Do it for Democracy. Just do it.