Living in My America

The morning after the 2016 presidential election, my children were distraught. My two girls the most—they had been so excited to see a woman elected to the most powerful position in the world. They both knew, to differing degrees depending on their ages, that the personal behavior and ethics of the man who beat her did not align with our own. My 17yo in particular understood everything that he had said, everything he’d been accused of. That morning, the scales fell from her eyes.

As I talked to my daughter that morning, I said to her that despite our understanding of the man elected, we could not equate his lack of ethics and morals with his voters’ values. Certainly there are people with truly disturbing beliefs who promoted his election. It is usually a sign that something has gone very wrong if you are on the same team with neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. There’s definitely something very wrong if you are on the same team and you don’t feel compelled to point out at every juncture that you disavow their racism and hatred.

But the vast majority of people who voted for him are good people, just as my daughter and I like to think of ourselves. I know this to be true because I know many of them myself. And in many cases, these friends and I simply happen to disagree on matters of public policy. They knew that Hillary Clinton would promote policies they disagreed with, so they voted for the other candidate. That’s how it often works in America, no matter what you happen to believe—we don’t always get our first-choice candidate, or even perhaps our fourth or fifth choice. We hold our nose and go with the person who seems closest, however fuzzy the comparison.

No, I told my daughter. What we learned is that other people had different deal-breakers than we did. Many liberals and progressives learned in the late 1990s that it was hard to reconcile the political positions of Bill Clinton with his personal moral choices and mistakes. For many conservatives, his personal failings simply confirmed what they already believed about him—and that reinforced their belief that a person’s character was an essential litmus test for their suitability to a life of public service. It’s not that Democrats didn’t care about Bill Clinton’s character—far from it. He’s just who we were stuck with by that point. Some of my conservative friends have had to make the same accommodation 20 years later. I do not gloat—it is a hard thing to reconcile.

In that time frame, it was helpful to me to remember that some of our most beloved and revered presidents also struggled in their marriages. As a young adult then, I’d never really considered infidelity before, but as I pondered it, I came to an understanding that someone else’s marriage was none of my business in the particulars, and the only thing I really had to think about was whether a president’s personal actions endangered the country. You could certainly argue that any president doing something personally embarrassing could be a target for blackmail or a risk to national security, but it seemed highly unlikely to me that that was a real risk with what we learned about Bill Clinton.

When George Bush was elected, I was disappointed and frustrated with the way the election had ended, but I did not doubt his character. I disagreed with more of his policies than I agreed with, but I believed that he loved this country as I do and that he was honored to serve. He did many things I was proud of while he served, and has done many more since then. With the perspective of a little more time, I believe that the partisan rancor ushered in starting in 1994 but greatly intensified at the end of Clinton’s term created a political atmosphere where the collective we were bound to make mistakes by the time Bush 43 was elected. We no longer simply disagree. We no longer trust each other’s motives and perceptions. I hope I am around long enough to see our perspective on the Iraq War and the subsequent destabilization in other parts of the Middle East in 2053. I will be curious to see how history judges American actions in the early 21st century with the perspective of a little more time.

When Obama was elected, most Americans desperately needed the hope he promised. We were frustrated by two wars that hadn’t all gone the way we’d wanted, if we wanted them at all. Our economy was a huge mess. It just seemed like so many things had gone off the rails. Let me be clear to say—for the most part, I think presidents get too much credit and too much blame for the economy. Presidents and lawmakers rarely “create jobs,” no matter how much they like to say so. FDR can claim that, but most others, not so much. I give the Federal Reserve a lot more credit for that, but most of all, I credit the American entrepreneurial spirit.

And as we’ve seen the past 8 years, and in stark relief during the 2016 election, about half the country believed that Obama represented a new kind of president. The other half, of course, was horrified by him.

Here’s what I’ve learned the past 8 years:
* Most of the people who opposed President Obama aren’t racist.
* There are more than a few who are, though. And some of the people who are racist do not recognize this prejudice in themselves. It’s been my experience that some people who are racist are those who feel compelled to shout the loudest that they would never judge anyone on race, or sex, or religion. God bless, but they cannot see the log in their own eye, or perhaps even just know not to admit it.
* Many people in this country are deeply uncomfortable with a world that is rapidly changing around them.
* More than any other time in my life, the worldview that conservative Christian religion describes is separated from the world we see daily by a deep chasm.

Our country is rapidly diversifying, and that is scary to many people. I don’t think it needs to be. My America isn’t described by my Christian faith. It isn’t described by my white skin. I celebrate America’s growing diversity not just in the abstract but in fact and in the specific.

Many people have said that my generation does not appreciate the work that women before us did, and I think that has often been the case. Many women my age [solid Gen X] were raised to believe we could be anything. Many women my age have seized opportunities that came easier to us than our mother’s generation. And many women my age have liked to say that sexism no longer exists, or is isolated.

For a while, a similar vein was heard regarding racism in this country, though in my experience, most people who have talked about this society being post-racial have not been people of color. I think many women in my generation and younger really have lived most of their lives without directly experiencing sexism, but I also believe many of us have been trained not to know it when we see it. I think fewer of my friends of color could say the same—I myself have seen far more overt racism than sexism in my life, and none of that racism has been directed at me.

My friends in the LGBTQIA communities are living a different experience as well. So much of the fight for their freedoms has come to fruition in my adulthood, much of it in the past few years. Their fight is fresh, new, and raw. It feels fragile to me.

As the American experiment enters its 241st year, here are the things that describe my America:
* I believe in the 1st Amendment. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. Freedom of religion. These form the bedrock of my understanding of what we’re doing here.
* That freedom of religion is why I so strongly oppose a conservative social agenda. If you believe it’s wrong because your church tells you so, you can’t make that a law. No one around here thinks murder or theft is OK. Those are community-held moral values. You might have come to that from a religious perspective, but it’s not a religious viewpoint.
* Current efforts to abridge contraception access, gay rights, and women’s rights all stem from a conservative Christian perspective. You are free to make whatever choice you like in your own life, but you don’t get to dictate my life, my daughters’ lives, my LGBTQIA friends’ lives because of your personal religious beliefs. You wouldn’t want us to dictate your choices based on our faith, or even on our lack thereof.
* We are still struggling to get it right when it comes to sexism and racism. Many of the systems that run our country were designed in a time when we did not all hold the same understanding of each other that most of us do today. We are beginning to understand collectively the things that many individuals and communities have known for years—our criminal justice system was stacked against people of color in an institutional, systemic way many years ago. We have not yet fully realigned it. Women still provide most care for children, and our failure to require robust family leave undercuts many women’s abilities to support their families. The abettors and perpetrators commiting such hate crimes must be brought to justice, or maybe the mere mention of Florida mandatory minimum sentencing would put some things in place.
* At the same time, my strong belief in the 1st amendment makes it difficult for me to support harsher penalties for “hate” crime. We should punish the crime, not the thought, if we dare live up to our own ideals.
* Our poverty rate is a moral failing in the richest country in the world.
* People are not poor because they are lazy. They aren’t poor because they want to be. They aren’t poor because it’s so easy to live off the government.
* If we were going to call ourselves a Christian nation, our poverty rate alone would be enough to indict us at the pearly gates.
* Since we’re not, I’ll make the economic argument that our income inequality and high poverty rate hold back the entire country’s economic potential.
* It is the responsibility of every single American to get the very best education they can, taking full advantage of every opportunity available to us.
* If we’re all going to succeed, we have to stop fighting about how to educate kids and just do it.
* America has nothing to fear but fear itself. Anyone who tells us we should be afraid—they are the ones to fear. Fear holds us back and draws us inward. America is at her shining very best when she focuses outward, full of confidence, not as a bully, but as a beacon to the world.
* The freer the trade, the better off we are. Our industries need far larger markets than this country alone can provide. India and China are far, far larger than we are, and I won’t be surprised if our population is surpassed by another country or two in my lifetime. We have been a supplier to the world, and we must continue to be if you want the economic math to stay in our favor.
* We need to make it easier to gain new skills and transition to new work as technology continues to transform industries. The stagnation we see in some sectors of the economy is almost all related to technology.
* We have to remember to celebrate our growing diversity, not fear it. No immigrants have ever changed this country for the worse. Our world grows smaller every day. We gain so much when we learn new perspectives from each other.
* We must lead when it comes to protecting our earth. We should be the world leader in renewable energy.
* Denying our partnership to our traditional allies will hurt us more than them. Our power comes from our willingness and ability to build strong bonds with other freedom-loving nations.
* We have to believe in each other. We are the ones—all 323-and-some-odd million of us—who have inherited the American dream. That dream is built by believing in each other and in our collective potential. We are all of us essential.