But what do we fight for? How about idealism, fairness and equality?

“I think Washington in general is unpopular, the president and congress, because we seem dysfunctional and we are dysfunctional.” – Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sunday, June 22, 2014

In the American experience, our country’s forebearers have left us a legacy of knowing who and what we are against. From religious persecution to the British, from slavery to Jim Crow, we fight. That is our story. We find purpose in the fight, so we agree on very little and the few policies where we find consensus are devoured by the vermin that infect the political beast. Just ask deposed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) what it’s like to wake up with the fleas with whom you’ve gone to bed, crawling under your skin.

The Republicans like to draw a picture of Obama being the extreme, and then there’s everyone else, or as John Boehner likes to call them, “the American people.” (Someone should to a count of how many times the Speaker uses that phrase when he actually means the Republican base, but I guess they’re American people, too – just not all the American people.) Inside the current dynamics of his party, that may be true.

“We are now operating in the Obama Republican Party,” Jon Lerner, a Republican consultant, admitted to the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, recently. “Obama’s lurch to the left on size-of-government issues has created an aggressive Republican reaction…”

That is, of course, an oversimplification. Lerner makes it sound like there’s been some line in the sand that’s been crossed and the GOP are holding a united line, because Obama stands against everything they believe. But it may be less a matter of political conviction and more a matter of political fear. In reality, what it’s done is made it harder for more moderate, consensus capable Republicans from speaking out, lest they too be Cantor-ed. Republicans, especially in red states, say what they have to for their own political survival, sometimes in a not so subtle course reversal, like Louisiana Governor [and 2016 presidential hopeful] Bobby Jindal (R) using his executive authority to disengage his state from its commitment to Common Core educational standards.

The truth for the GOP is that they embraced the Tea Party appropriated Gadsden flag snake because they thought it would make them more powerful, that their establishment brand conservatism was enough to control it, like a faithful West Virginia snake handling preacher. Instead, it continues to bite them, and the party faithful label the poisoned politician a poser, and not a real conservative at all.

The serpent juggling disunity only makes the Republicans a more dangerous counter to the president, albeit a less cohesive one. Assuming that Lerner is correct in how united the GOP is against President Obama and the Democrats, it’s difficult to see a way this national disunity leaves our union strong.

President Obama recognized some of the pettiness in this obstructionism during his last election, in an interview with MSNBC. He said that while “there are a whole range of issues, I think, where we can actually bring the country together, with a non-ideological agenda, the question’s going to be: How do Republicans react in Congress post-election? Because there’s going to be a war going on inside that party. It just hasn’t broken out. It’s been unified, in opposition to me.”

We all know that despite the president’s pre-election optimism, that dynamic did not change.

Anti-war protest, March, 2009 Photo credit: Bill Hackwell (modified)
Anti-war protest, March, 2009
Photo credit: Bill Hackwell (modified)

Yet, there are fundamentals over which the hypocrisy of our history break to one side, when unity thrives and there is a clear understanding of what it means to be an American. That is when we demonstrate a consensus of tolerance and concern, of fairness and equal opportunity. After all, fifty years ago last week, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. I believe the river of idealism that brought us to that moment still runs below the ugly asphalt surface with which we have chosen to pave our politics and our personal relationships.

Our Twentieth Century successes, as a global partner in war and a global leader in business, standing (mostly) shoulder to shoulder against the injustices of racism and bigotry and poverty, have spoiled us with unsustainable expectations of inevitable American greatness. Now, with wagging fingers and tisk-tisking lips creating the perception of fading American glory, we blame those with whom we have profound disagreements, even about what made us great in the first place. Setting aside for a moment that the “glory” itself could be a pure Yankee Doodle, hubris infused, false reality, we have to examine whether we are truly fading into the upstage shadows, or growing, finding new ways to transform into a more robust, sustainable republic, a truly bright city on the hill.

It’s easy to poke at Dick Cheney’s chutzpah (or cojones, depending on which corner of the country you are from) when he says, regarding Obama’s loathing of military conflict, “Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”

But this is not just a nation of hawks and doves, or bullies and peons, or makers and takers. I don’t know anyone who self identifies as any of those. We describe our nation as great because we know how to fight and we know how to thrive in peace. We can lose – and have lost – wars, and still win as a country. When we lose, it’s when we abandon peaceful principles to pursue a vengeful agenda, like the Bush/Cheney decision to invade Iraq.

Simply coming up with justification of a cause does not make a cause just. A sixteen-year-old can tell you why he just had to answer a text and ended up crashing the car, but that doesn’t mean he was right to do it. Indeed, in our representative government, we should be the parents disciplining our petulant government as to what is and is not justifiable. Instead, we long ago abdicated our responsibility for shepherding fair and just government outcomes to greedy politicians and Wall Street bankers, with predictable results. Now they see us as the incorrigible children – ignorant, rebellious and bothersome.

We still are not through with this cycle of dysfunctional governance enabled by a contentious electorate. But in order
to remove the chocks from the wheels of government and let it fly, we have to work together. We can’t all be the pilot, but by letting go of absolutes, we can come to an agreement on the heading. Despite all our differences and what and who we are against, wise, patient folks can come together and be unified, even imperfectly, on what we stand for as a people. That is what made us great in the first place, in Philadelphia, in 1776, and everywhere since, when we have stood together as brothers and sisters, committed to a more tolerant world and a more perfect, fair and equal nation.

What do you have to let go of to make that happen?


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