A shining city on a hill. What if anything can American values teach a free Belarus?
The United States may not be the best model for a fledgling democracy looking for fresh values. America’s values have never been as pure as its rhetoric, and in recent years they have been obscured by bitter partisanship.
I’m writing this essay several weeks before the American presidential election and I am told that it will only appear in print some days afterwards – when most likely there will not be a solid verdict about the winner, or even if there is one, it will only serve as the cue for hordes of lawyers to start fighting in the courts. Unlike a lot of political observers, I think that, in the long run, the outcome of the 2020 election is not as important as the fact that for the last four years a bright light has been shone in the dark corners of American politics and the problems revealed cannot be easily remedied. If nothing else, Donald Trump’s term in office has been a grotesque test of the durability of the American system; and what we have learned, if we didn’t know it already, is that there are long-standing weaknesses in the American Constitution as well as troubling aspects of our national history and characterological flaws in the American psyche.
Whoever ends up winning the election faces the prospect of a decentralised, inefficient government and a citizenry polarised to the point where people shoot one another in the streets over differing political opinions. With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the prospect of a rigidly conservative Supreme Court adds to the chaos and threatens to reverse laws that have stood for decades. The fact that many of these problems are systemic leads one to wonder if they are ever solvable in the short or long term.
I am not a political philosopher – my area of “expertise” is limited to American politics and mores, a familiarity with Western European democracies after the Second World War, and an abiding admiration for the European welfare state. What I am going to say about American values may not have much relevance to the situation in Eastern Europe, more specifically Belarus. But I am aware that the polarisation of the American electorate is not exactly unique – and maybe the fact that the US cannot be universally regarded anymore as the bastion of democracy can allow its flaws to at least serve as a cautionary tale for other nations.
In one sense, the Trump administration and the Black Lives Matter movement have been in a weird sort of partnership over the last few years, working separately but in tandem to undermine the illusion of American exceptionalism and the US as a land of moral purity – Jonathan Edwards’s “city on a hill”, which Ronald Reagan with his Hollywood flair amped up to a “shining city on a hill”. Like a bull in a china shop, Trump has run rampant, exposing the slow workings of a creaky government while being the banner-bearer for a set of attitudes that have always been implicit in the American psyche. These attitudes are immediate and localised; emotional rather than logical; impervious to reason or analysis. They are not values as much as feelings, emotional certainties, that millions of Americans hold dear – that “freedom” means the right to stick to a narrow set of personal interests and disregard everyone else, that there is a hidden conspiracy constantly working to take away one’s personal “liberties”, and that the American Dream is only about the accumulation of wealth.
This is not to say that there are not plenty of people who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 for less venal reasons. But the existence of this group – and I would include elitist Democrats whose capacity for altruism is also wafer-thin – has never been as out in the open as it is now, and as eager to flex its muscles.
The Black Lives Matter movement questions American exceptionalism in an even more obvious way. It makes it impossible to ignore the fact that America’s history is tainted, and that the economic and psychological effects of slavery have not come close to being resolved. Reporting from the 1619 Project of the New York Times, inspired by BLM, showed that the US has never been an equal-opportunity haven for immigrants and the pandemic has further demonstrated that everything from income to health is worse for people of colour.
So the US cannot be self-righteous about itself any longer. The real question that the US faces is as basic as it gets: can we rebuild the nation on the ashes of our illusions about ourselves? (Come to think of it, one aspect of the cautionary tale inherent in the American story that can be useful to a democratic Belarus – if there is really any chance of one being born – is to remind the Founding Fathers and Mothers of the new Belarus to acknowledge the mistakes of the past if they do not want them to come back and bite them.)
Values as an obstacle
Can a new nation be formed on a new set of values? In the case of America, even if it gets past Trump, can it really reinvent itself? The other day I watched a transatlantic discussion between Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty about the economic effects of the pandemic. In an engaging but weary way, Stiglitz described the problems in the US, while Piketty energetically offered criticism of the EU’s response to the virus. He was full of suggestions: a carbon-tax on polluting nations, a wealth tax, regulation of capitalism, changing the EU unanimity rule to a simple majority, and allowing a smaller number of EU nations to have decision-making authority. Perhaps because Piketty is younger, he seemed more optimistic about the possibilities of shifting the values of the EU; or perhaps because he wasn’t American, he wasn’t as disheartened about the roadblocks in the way. I felt as tired as Stiglitz looked.
Two obstacles stand in the way of change in the US system. The first is the archaic US Constitution, the oldest working constitution in the world. It is outdated and unworkable. The last amendment, an exceedingly minor one about the salaries of the Congress, was ratified 40 years ago and there have been only 26 changes, many of them inconsequential, to the document since 1791. Among the most problematic aspects of the Constitution is the Electoral College, an arcane system of voting indirectly for candidates that gives an unfair advantage to rural states. Electing two Senators from each state regardless of the size of its population is a further impediment, and even the concept of direct rather than proportional voting needs to be reconsidered. But we cannot do it. To amend the Constitution requires two-thirds of both Houses and the ratification of three-fourths of the state legislatures. As of this writing, Congress cannot even agree on a stimulus package in the midst of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The second obstacle brings us back to values. In the US there has always been a war between two sets of values: on the one hand individualism, on the other a wish to build a society around the notion that “all men are created equal”. The Founding Fathers believed that John Locke’s concept of “enlightened self-interest” – that self-interest, if tempered by reason, would recognise the need for a support system of other people – would provide a middle position between these poles. Sometimes this worked. Not now. The sides are too far apart.
Not only are the Trumpists intractable, but the “progressive left” couldn’t care less about finding common ground with them. The Congress has not passed a major bill in years. Joe Biden may be a centrist, but if he is elected, he will have to contend with voices from both sides that may make it impossible to accomplish much of anything. If people are unwilling to compromise, how can freedom and community be brought together? Or rather, since “freedom” has come to be a synonym for solipsism, and “community” suggests the worst instances of Cold War totalitarianism, how can we even start to re-examine the terms themselves?
At least in the short run, the US is in for some bad years. The death of Justice Ginsburg is a real blow. As of this writing, it looks like Trump will be able to install a third conservative Supreme Court Justice in four years, and even if Biden wins and both Houses go to the Democratic Party, the power of the Court is enormous and laws may be struck down the minute they leave the Congressional chambers. The ability of the internet to marshal large groups together that has facilitated the protest rallies of the last four years may not lead to civil war, but we can expect more fighting and killing in the streets over political differences. The hopes that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren briefly raised for a more humane and equitable distribution of wealth will fade in the background of more immediate concerns; the powers of American corporate capitalism are not likely to diminish in the foreseeable future.
But all may not be lost in American democracy. The one hope I see – which isn’t really a value as much as the relative openness (until recently) of America’s borders – is the racial mix and mingling that has been going on in the US in plain sight for decades. The population of California, for instance, is less than 50 per cent white and this will continue to change. Racism notwithstanding, anecdotal evidence suggests that the US may finally be becoming the melting-pot that propagandists always insisted it was – especially among the young people that Sanders said were behind him if only they raised their voices loud enough.
This racial diversity is in itself a good thing, and the polls seem to indicate that people of all races, conservative or progressive, are universally fearful of climate change. Isn’t it likely then, or at least possible, that this mingling of young people comfortable with one another in terms of race and sexual orientation will become so terrified of their shared future that they will start talking across party lines and that priorities will be re-examined through a new, single lens? Will it aid or hinder the survival of the species? If this happens, new configurations can arise that bring together individualism and community, and finally reveal the wisdom of John Locke’s dictum: we need one another to maximise ourselves.
At least I hope so. It is a faint hope and the condition that it is based on – that climate change will become so alarming that it supersedes political differences – is not a pretty prospect.
In the meantime, the US may not be the best model for a fledgling democracy looking for fresh values. America’s values have never been as pure as its rhetoric, and in recent years they have been obscured by bitter partisanship. A free Belarus might better look to the Scandinavian blend of social welfare and private-public partnerships as a helpful guide to the future. And whatever Constitution they come up with, they had better make sure that it can be updated whenever it needs to be.
George Blecher is a former professor with the City University of New York. He is a writer, journalist and translator. His articles appear in, among others, the New York Times, Eurozine, New Republic, Christian Science Monitor, as well as the Danish daily Information.
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