The United States was built on a solid foundation of equality, justice, freedom and democracy. But over the centuries that foundation has shown stress cracks as an increasingly-diverse America struggles to weave the principles into practice. The original motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one), was adopted by Congress in 1782 and remains inscribed on the Great Seal of The United States. But today it is under assault by increasing political and social polarization.
America has always suffered through periods in which the incumbent citizens felt threatened by newcomers, or by “the others” from within. Many white Americans believed that their status was endangered by the rising up of people whose skin color and ethnicity were different from the majority; or, whose spiritual traditions were other than Protestant Christian; or, immigrants who arrived speaking a different language; or, new arrivals who had skills that better fit a changing economy than those of the native born Americans; or, frankly, people from abroad who arrived here willing to work hard and establish a place in their new country’s socioeconomic pyramid.
It seems to me that while we proudly proclaim the motto, we have never fully lived into the E Pluribus Unum dream. The majority of us bounce around the middle point between the two polls of division and unity, while a few hold permanent residency at one end or the other.
Polarization and Fragmentation Impeding America
Thomas Friedman said it well in his April 6 editorial in The New York Times: What is playing out is a “political fragmentation/polarization that is hobbling America: the loss of a shared national narrative to inspire and bind the country as it journeys into the 21st century.” He refers to a Washington Post op/ed by Dov Seidman who wrote, “When your country is a grand, aspirational project… it requires sharing some very deep things–––foundational principles like liberty and justice for all and an animating ethos like America’s E Pluribus Unum. Right now…those deep things not only have been fractured, they are actively being fractured by a polarization industry that assaults the truth and trust necessary for these projects to flourish.” Governing, therefore, has become increasingly difficult.
It is a fact that America has never been easy to govern, but statesmen and women always seemed to rise above the fray and step into the breach. Lyndon Johnson did this during a time that the nation was disintegrating in a morass of racial strife. His Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support despite a 75-day filibuster by Southern Senators. The president and a bi-partisan coalition stayed focus and made history.
A Time of Testing
When he signed the bill, President Johnson said, “My fellow citizens, we have come now to a time of testing. We must not fail. Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole.” A year later he pushed through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the nation’s history. Johnson, with all of his flaws, was a leader who met and embraced his moment.
I believe that Joe Biden has the potential to do the same, but he is encumbered by an era of divisive and venomous distrust, both within the halls of Congress and among the factions of their constituencies. To make Biden’s dilemma worse, he was preceded by the most polarizing leader of my lifetime, a vulgar faux-populist whose only agenda was to bolster himself and to destroy the democratic institutions that have guided this country through hard times in the past. The residue of his time in office is a contempt of government in the minds of his ardent followers, and a general lack of faith among the broader populace that government is capable of meeting the moment.
Biden and his Congressional allies must rebuild a government that serves the people in much the same way that Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s when he inherited a depression and a demoralized public. They must rebuild the institutional and political infrastructures of American government while at the same time addressing the nation’s long-neglected physical and human infrastructure. As a beginning, the president has put forward a big, comprehensive program that will soon be debated and voted on in both houses of Congress.
It will take all of the lessons Biden has absorbed over a lifetime of public service to keep the comprehensive program from being carved up by members of Congress into 535 personal agendas. It will require courageous members of Congress–––both from the left and from the right–––to put aside their personal and partisan schemes to focus entirely on what is good for the nation. As President Johnson said, “We have now come to a time of testing. We cannot fail… Let us lay aside irrelevant differences and make our nation whole.”