In the absence of Trump’s never-ending acting out – culminating in the insurrection of Jan 6, Trumpians are left with the fear, anger, and a sense of being replaced. Trump had previously protected his followers from these feelings through his acting them out day after day of what must be the most bizarre presidency. But with Trump out of office vicariousness wanes. Now “the base” acts the part of Trump without him, its cult leader. We see this in the spring of 2021, to greater and lesser degrees, and in a wide array of disturbing mutations.
At the same time, America – always a complex proposition – is in a phase of catching up: rooting out injustices of the past that have been brought to light by the dual pandemics of Covid and Trump. The agenda is vast, including political, cultural, and ecological dimensions all at very high stakes. In the midst of civil war in all of those dimensions and pervasive moral disease, the question is whether the justice agenda can be pursued sufficiently (I remember how the war in Viet Nam in the 1960’s eclipsed the War on Poverty…). And, with the chill of fascism in the air, another side to the same question arises: will America be able to reintegrate the Trumpians, or let them discharge their venom in ways that could be tolerated? – or will they overwhelm and sink the American project with their resentment?
It seems more important than ever that those of us not infected (or more moderately so) step up and do our part to energize a society based on mutual respect, appreciation of encounter with the other who is different, and striving for “liberty and justice for all.” As Cornell West and others have pointed out, this kind of generalized democratic awakening has occurred before, in fact in times like ours when the very viability of the “American experiment” was on the line. For me, the most vivid memory of a previous time like our own was in the 1960’s when Martin Luther King captured the essence of democratic awakening with his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail:” “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform a pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood [sic].”
We can take some encouragement from the 2020 election (imagine if Trump had won!). But now is not the time to give in to the exhaustion that follows overcoming of “the big lie” while living in pandemic with issues of racism and climate change. Here, it seems, is democracy’s essential appeal to American citizens today: can we step beyond the exhaustion to affirm a life together?
The genius of American democracy lies within the heart of ordinary citizens living this affirmation, each in our own walk of life. Here is the center of the paradoxical “equality of difference,” as America’s deepest source of vitality. For it is only when I stand in the presence of real but not incommensurable difference that I begin to have access to that vitality as well as to my genuine self. Here is where the magic of E Pluribus Unum occurs.
What is most valued in these dynamics is a certain creative space, one which is – again paradoxically – both open, as in the ineffability of the Dao, Allah, God, and simultaneously plentiful, as the source of life’s greatest gifts. It is a space that becomes available when we are able to stand in the paradox. It requires an “other,” one who is separate and different (not confluent or co-dependent), at the same time that their appearing in the midst of the great openness makes them radically equal – no less a miracle than I am. Here is an elevating equality, where difference is understood not on a scale that ranks from better to worse, and neither in a way that opens on to the relativism of “whatever” or the reductionist preferences of consumerism
The origin of this consciousness is to be found in the human capacity for self-transcendence, literally the capacity to make my former self other. So the fact that I can reflect on myself and make choices as to how to direct myself, in what Hannah Arendt so significantly articulated as “the inner dialogue between me and myself,” could be seen as the headwaters of a new vision of human maturity and well-being (or a very old one, nearly forgotten, urgently needed in these post-traditional times).
This last point accounts for how rare democracy has been in world history, though people like Amartya Sen point out that it has likely been more present as an inspiring force than we might have been brought up to think. Democracy is intimately connected with the deepest aspiration of the human race: to live as a self that can be kind and patient – and effective — with a lower self who stumbles frequently, and in a community in which we are all valued and supported in our uniqueness. Democracy, then, both requires and generates a certain possibility of human maturity or self-actualization.
From where we stand in our time we can see that the baser urgencies of our lower nature have intervened and mostly prevailed. We’ve insisted on being right, superior, special in the eyes of a judging god who chooses his people without revealing the criteria, forcing society to define them crudely. We’ve been obsessed with order and control, and placing ourselves at the center of the universe. We’ve gone to outrageous extents to deny death.
Maybe the deep meaning of the intersecting crises of our time is that they bring death to our door: Covid and Trump, wildfires and police shootings, denial of truth and assertion of that which is untrue, transparently self-serving political arguments and actions – the list goes on and on. These crises are expressive of the fact that we live on what is likely a failing planet, at least in its Anthropocene Era. The cultural air we breathe is saturated with fear, lethargy, and dread.
My own time as a person might be up at any moment. So why not withdraw and relax into the abyss, or break into a lifestyle of cynicism (or join a cult associated with one of these options)? The answer must be Amor Mundi, love of the world and especially of those human beings with whom I share it and its ongoing creation. They anchor me, comfort me, join me in weaving meaning.
So indeed America is ambitious as a vision of the good life, an ever-unfolding aspiration, a hope, an enlightenment. This vision is very attractive to human beings, though perhaps less so than a fine automobile.John Dewey, one of America’s greatest visionaries, said democracy is “more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living,” and I want to join Arendt (per above) in saying it is a way of being a person as well. Democracy does not call on us to do anything beyond our means, just that we live well and give our little push for the common good. It presumes – rather astonishingly, given the facts of our species history — that the individual person is capable of learning and taking care of themselves. This includes awareness that attending to the common good is beneficial for us as well as those we help, mindful that – as MLK put it — other-preservation, not self-preservation is the first law of life. And, of course, in our time we have come to much greater understanding as to what this requires, including the maintaining of an active awareness that the common good must now be enacted on a planetary scale. And all this sits alongside ever-present temptation to live chronically overwhelmed or otherwise checked out.
There is a story about Confucius being asked what he would do if he knew the world was going to end. He said, in a distinctly calm sort of way, that he would keep tending his garden. He did not dismiss the question.
Stephen C. Rowe is professor emeritus of philosophy at Grand Valley State University. A second, “From Pandemic” edition of his Overcoming America / America Overcoming will be published later this year.
Arendt, H. (1977). “The two in one,” in The life of the mind: thinking. New York: Harvest Books, 185.
Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press, 87.
King, M. L. (1967) “The world house,” in Where do we go from here: chaos or community? (Boston: Beacon Press), 182. This seminal essay is also included in an anthology of mine in which I sought to preserve wisdom of the 60’s, as the later Seventies tide of Reagan’s “moral majority” flowed in: Rowe, S. (Ed.), (1989). Living beyond crisis: essays on discovery and being in the world. New York: Pilgrim Press.
Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to die in the Anthropocene. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Sen, A. (2003). “Democracy and its global roots,” in The new republic, Oct. 6, 2003, 28-35.
West, C. (2004). Democracy matters: winning the fight against imperialism. New York: Penguin Press.