I have become convinced that politics in America today is little more than the gap between reality and our ideals.
There are two problems with this. The first is that we all have different ideals about how a truly fair and just and decent nation is supposed to operate. Some believe it must be Christian, some long for an open society where everyone can be anything. Some value equal opportunity for everyone to achieve their full potential while some believe that the fruits of a rich land need to be shared. That is common to many nations today, and the debate as to what exactly we value is important.
But we also spend far too much time arguing about what is reality to be considered healthy.
America is unique among nations in that it has always been defined by its ideals. To be an American is not to be born of a particular race or culture, though many are tempted to define our nation that way. Anyone, anywhere in the world is already an American if they can recite one simple catechism or statement of beliefs with all their heart:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This is a statement of revolution, of high ideals. Putting that into practice has always been the hard part. It naturally splinters along a few lines. Is the emphasis on freedom, or the ability to do whatever you want? Is it on life, or the protection of everyone? Is it on being happy?
Many other nations don’t have this kind of problem. The main goal of Germany is to take care of Germans. Japan is there for the Japanese, and vice-versa. China has some characteristics like America in that it is so eternal that it is also an ideal of a kind, even if that is more of a feeling than something which can be said in so few words.
This is normal, and it is what separates America from the rest of the world. Our politics has always worked best when it is practical, or forged from a consensus that demands action. Today the lack of any general agreement on our ideals demands inaction. Nothing can be done in our system and our hearts until we have some idea what it must be.
But that is far from the only problem.
Lately, the exact state of our nation, the reality of our situation, has also come up for debate. For six years after the worst of 2010, the exact low point, many people found it necessary to trash-talk our economy and the state of our nation. The gains from that period are now being trumpeted as if they took place in just the last few months. It’s entirely a matter of spin, propaganda, distortion, whatever you want to call it.
The definition of “reality” now depends on whom you listen to.
Given that our internal debate is indeed that gap between ideal and real, we cannot possibly function with both sides entirely up for debate. There is no useful politics not only because we cannot agree on where we should go but because we also do not know where we are. There cannot be a road between two points which do not exist.
The truth is that we are, indeed, neither here nor there. We are rich, but we are also poor. We are moral, but we are also wicked. We are a nation of opportunity and a nation of oppression. America is so incredibly big that it can be all things for all people at all times, simultaneously and mutually exclusive.
That is where we stand at the end what I called, five years ago, “The Year Everything Changes.” It has, indeed. Just not in any way which can yet be considered useful or productive.