This essay was precipitated by a friend who wanted me to respond to his question: What do you think will solve our country’s problems? Asking for solutions to our country’s problems is mind-boggling if for no other reason than it begs the question of what is wrong with our country. There are so many problems with our country right now it is difficult to sort through them. Although some may not agree, I think most of our problems are exemplified in the election of Donald Trump. The absolute incompetence and greed of his presidency do nothing but exacerbate the deeper problems of American society. If there is hope for our country and its constitutional framework, we must do all we can to vote him out of office.
This will buy us some time, but it will not fix our problems. The problems we face are deeper than Donald Trump and when we dig deeper, we are confronted with the question of how he was elected in the first place? What made so many people turn their heads to the xenophobic debauchery that marks Trump’s behavior? What is it about a great number of people who extol his misogyny? What empowers a political party to exonerate “high crimes and misdemeanors” and treat the intrusion of foreign powers into our electoral process as if it were business as usual? Why does Trump not call Putin to task for placing a bounty upon the heads of our service men and women, an omission that is highlighted by Democrats yet seemingly ignored by Republicans? What type of person can tolerate an Attorney’s General more committed to doing the President’s bidding, a loyalty that seems to reduce justice to political agendas? Who can continue to support a pathological liar whose deceit has been of such magnitude that the Oxford Dictionary coined “post-truth” as the word of the year for 2016 the year Trump was elected? Why do 80% of Evangelical Christians continue to support someone who is so devoid of moral character?
There is something going on here and it is my fear that deep-seated seething and hatred has been brewing for decades and threatens to erode the critical consciousness of the American public. While reason is not the panacea of morality that many Enlightenment thinkers held it to be, unbridled passion that breeds blind loyalty is much worse. Whether on the left or the right, such passionate myopias cannot define much less tolerate a common good, something that was championed when I was a child as the defining bedrock of successful democracy. What is it that motivates people to pick sides and in so doing view those who hold differing points of view not as worthy opponents working for the betterment of the country, but as enemies whose ways undermine freedom and, if embraced, herald our country’s demise? The issues that have brought us to this moment are bigger than Trump, yet Trump exemplifies the current that propels our country towards a cliff without a parachute.
A book I read while studying at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley was entitled Sacred Discontent. If I remember correctly, it was the considered opinion of the author that the Judeo-Christian tradition was one that could not be settled; it was grounded in the restlessness that is characterized by Abram as a wandering Aramean. This would suggest, he argued, that God’s election is not about dogma, it is not about resolution but is about a “sacred discontent” that does not allow us to rest with timeless platitudes of dogmatic certainty about God or each other. If we think we have figured God out, we are wrong. If we think we know who God’s elect are, we are mistaken. To think we “know” who God is or that we can identify God’s elect is hubris akin to idolatry.
While I know that Trump’s presidency is not necessarily a religious matter, I think there is an analogy here. It is not just religion that needs to be in a constant state of sacred discontent. So also does a democracy. We are never the democracy that we need to be, our laws are never as good or fair as they should be, and our common bond as a community is never as strong as it needs to be. We are a work in progress. It is our duty as citizens of the United States to embrace the idea that the American experiment is a work in progress always seeking to be more inclusive that all its people might enjoy the right to life, liberty and pursuit of Happiness. This quest is our sacred discontent as a country. To participate in it is our sacred responsibility as citizens of this country.
To deny this responsibility is fraught with peril for it is founded on the mistaken sense that we have figured things out and our way of understanding the Constitution and the laws it frames is the only way of understanding it. When this happens, the grey that represents progress gives way to the dogmatism of black and white embracing a “good” defined exclusively for only a few. It is such dogmatism and its blinders that hide from us the complexity of difference that is the ferment that allows someone like Donald Trump to be elected. In this, people do not want to share ideas and through compromise, seek more inclusive principles of right. They simply want to agree. It’s easier that way. People want things settled and they have turned to exclusionary tactics and authoritative answers for questions that have no easy answers. As philosophers have understood through the centuries, it is what I am calling “sacred discontent” that has greater opportunity of binding diversity together in a common cause. What is democracy and how should it be organized to develop a fair economy so that its people can prosper? I have ideas that may seek to answer this question, but I in no way claim that my thoughts bring an end to the quest for a greater and more inclusive democracy. It is a quest that must peer deeply into the multicultural and ethnically diverse society that is the United States. It is a quest that embraces people of difference, not just those who look and think the same. I fear people have grown weary of this quest and they are beginning to rest with certitudes of exclusion and refuse to entertain further and more penetrating questions. The ground of such weariness sows the demise of democracy and tills a fertile ground for the growth of narcissism that grows into thorns of autocracy and worse, a brutal nationalism that embraces those of like mind while excluding and tyrannizing those whose opinions and beliefs differ.
This appears to be our country. What is the problem that plagues it? Well, I believe it is a disregard for the common good. The common good is not defined by like-minded people who all look the same. The common good, whatever it may be, is defined only by the diversity that is reflected in those who make up the United States. We do not define the common good and the laws that help it excel by ignoring its diversity. Rather, we talk about it to each other honing our thoughts upon the critical discourse that lies at the heart of democracy. I fear, however, that our country is headed toward a cliff and has no parachute to keep it safe. If Donald Trump has his way, there will be no parachute because he thinks he has all the answers that will “make America great again.” His answers will not help define the common good for they are exclusionary and will do little to include all who live in our country. A democracy is not made great through exclusion; it is made great though its ability to conceive of a common good that is inclusive. It thrives when its leaders and its people embrace sacred discontent that energizes innovation and a deeper understanding of what e pluribus unum means. “Out of many one.” That is our motto and it is our quest that will never allow us to rest content with the status quo but continue to explore, understand, and appreciate the wonderful diversity that shapes us as one.