We’ve been hearing it for years, even in the decade before Donald Trump – the end of the American Empire. The analogies to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire have been plenteous and concerning. The America we knew – the better part of it – is gone, we are told, and all that’s left is dystopian.
I’m not so sure that is the case, but it is important to acknowledge how Americans are feeling. They continually wonder what’s happening, how things dropped to this level. Yes, there is the Trump base – fervent and faithful – that believe the American star is on the rise, but that’s not the majority of citizens and that’s important to remember. Somehow, the political system delivered a kind of aberration and rather than damning Americans themselves, it would be better to focus on the democratic system and fix it instead.
But still the sentiment remains that our neighbour to the south is enduring some kind of nightmare that was present prior to the Trump presidency but is now endemic – everywhere. I have American friends, some Republican, some Democratic, who are genuinely baffled and embarrassed by what is going on. They wonder how citizens who are shocked nevertheless feel nothing can be done about it. They ask the same questions repeatedly and wonder why their country can’t pull out of its madness and lethargy and the phrase of “Make America Great Again” that keeps hammering at their collective brain.
Yet the United States still possesses mounds of goodwill and a deep craving for principled liberty. The French economist Michel Chevalier (1806-1879) traveled around America in the 1830s and returned home to write a book about all he learned. Titled Society, Manners and Politics in the United States, it became a treatise on the country’s civic energy, of women and men who wished to create their own destiny with their gifts and talents, and build a new nation birthed in freedom.
That America still lives today but has been submerged under all its national and state politics, its blind partisanship and endless infusion of cash into its political system. The public good was their responsibility, and not merely that of their elected representatives. Like every other nation, America during its more civic period was selfish and generous, self-centred and collective, prejudicial and remarkably open, poor and rich. But above all its civic and community life was on the move, alive with potential and ever eager to establish its freedom to choose its destiny.
Ultimately, the essence of the American spirit, was, and still is, about voluntary association – the priority of gathering, of building together, of worshipping, creating and dreaming as a nation based on an idea. This voluntary spirit was its driving force for its first two centuries and remains remarkably alive today. But, and pardon the pun, that nugget of civilization is being trumped by its politics, its corporate sector, its historical biases and – can we admit it? – its fear. Even when they opt to freely come together to open a community centre, to come to the rescue during times of emergency, to start service clubs, to support their volunteer fire department, to coach Little League and to care for their neighbour, their community life seems more than ever to be transcended by politics and division.
This is modern America: the core of goodness and helpfulness nevertheless shrouded by its politics, corporate greed, mass media and its relentless search for wealth. In other words, the country’s inherent goodness is being plundered by a kind of elite madness that rips away at its civic greatness. What we are witnessing is the political destruction of public virtue and it’s an awful thing watch in real time.
And yet, the beleaguered United States of America still gives massively to the larger world, still seeks to hold on to the rule of law (despite those at the very top violating it), still seeks a “free” press over a corporate conglomeration of interests, still seeks a better equality between men, and still dares to dream of a day free of racism, and still gathers in their communities to find meaning in one another.
Which will win out – America’s true heartbeat or its growing haughtiness? And just at the moment we believe it to be the latter, we need to remember that the millions of acts of goodness exhibiting by Americans every day never make it to the news or to the top of selective interests. But they still happen and they still seek to make civic virtue the centre of collective life.
Can all these wondrous human values make America good again? Of course, since such acts happen by the millions every day. But for American citizens to success in their quest, they will have to rise again and press their case that greatness comes from goodness and not the other way around.