Pulling Ourselves Together (Revisited)

Today is my first day back from a month-long vacation away from Wilmette’s final weeks (I hope) of winter. Returning home and still recovering from jet lag, I had the idea that I could phase back into newsletter contributions by inserting a past essay that is still timely. I chose the May 9, 2018 commentary titled “Pulling ourselves together” with its unsurprising message that uniting Americans in this complex century is a huge challenge. 

But yesterday, as I reread my May 2018 comments, I realized that with the 2020 Presidential campaigning now underway, that reality should also be addressed. 

My words in last May’s newsletter were inspired by a movie I had just seen, “The Rider.” The film takes place in the wide-open spaces of America’s West and features a young man and his friends immersed in the culture of rodeo riding. It was a world completely unfamiliar to me.  

As I watched the action, filmed in the vast western landscape of the Dakotas (also unfamiliar to me) I was moved by how huge a country our United States is and how breathtakingly diverse are its people. And I asked myself, “How could any political party or candidate ever think they could get their arms around this mass of humanity?”  

Ten months later, that question feels even more urgent. — How does a nation as large and diverse as ours achieve a level of cohesion that will see us through the perils of the 21st century without losing its way? 

If we look at modern China, their cohesion is achieved under the firmly established rule of President Xi Jinping and his Communist Party apparatus. While today’s Russia is bound together by the absolute dictates of President Vladimir Putin. — These are not the best environments for developing freethinking creativity or individual opportunity. — But, when it comes to navigating a government through the complexities of today’s world, authoritarian leaders do have a certain appeal. Even our very own President seems, at times, to admire his Chinese and Russian peers’ approach to governance. 

Unfortunately, I don’t believe the President is alone in his admiration. I suspect there are more than a few people in America who would be comfortable with some “mild” form of authoritarianism – as long as they can keep getting what they want. (That’s the way authoritarian regimes often begin their ascent.) Certainly the crowds applauding President Trump’s pugnacious statements at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) might go along with such a development. His cry that our free press is the “enemy of the people” is chilling. And the willingness of too many Republican members of Congress to acquiesce to President Trump’s effort to bypass the constitutional funding powers of the U.S. House should trouble every American. 

A recent New Yorker Magazine article reporting on the perversely close ties between the Trump Administration and Fox News is also an unhealthy development. Apparently Sean Hannity has become the “Minister of Propaganda” for the Trump regime, and he has a locked-in national audience. 

My point is, the size and diversity of our country makes the United States fertile ground for divisive demagoguery and authoritarian appeals. So now I will repeat the question I asked back in May, 2018: Here in the U.S.A., in these divisive times, what will it take to see our own huge, multi-cultured country become more closely united in a common purpose?  

The good news is, we now know it can be done. The results of last fall’s elections right here in Illinois should give us hope and guidance for the direction that must be taken. Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D. IL 17th) won reelection and Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (D. IL 14th) won her first election. Both Democrats received urban and rural votes in congressional districts that included farmers, factory workers, ethnic and racial minorities, white majorities, in other words, Bustos and Underwood won the support of a diversity of voters not unlike those across the United States in general.  

These victorious Democrats won by speaking not to fear or fabricated issues but to the issues that are of universal concern to Americans no matter where they live or what they do. And this is what must happen across the United States in the 2020 campaigns of every Democratic candidate at every level of elected government – and certainly in the campaigns of every Democrat running for President.  

You can bet the Republican think tanks will be steering their campaigns in nasty directions. The accusations of “radical socialism” and “communist agendas” may make us feel like we’re back in Joe McCarthy’s era. I’m concerned that such fears spread by candidate Trump and other Republican office seekers may lead many voters to accept authoritarianism as the answer. – Will that happen? Maybe. Maybe not. But we must be on guard against it.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973