USA TODAY US Edition
‘More perfect union’ takes work, together
I don’t love that at the start of my second century, we must fight to defend so many of the gains that were achieved during my first century
Eighty years after I dropped out of college to fight the spread of fascism overseas, I see freedom threatened by a growing authoritarian movement at home.
Ninety years after I heard Father Charles Coughlin spreading antisemitism and white nationalism over the radio, I hear it being spread on far-reaching tentacles of cable television, social media and emerging alternative platforms.
These menacing voices have captured and contaminated the minds of too many of our fellow Americans.
Fortunately, this week’s election was not the wave that the far right hoped for. Still, some who were elected this week won because of lies that were told, resentments that were nurtured, fears and bigotries that were inflamed by people who are poisoning our political climate to build their own power and influence. Information warfare is this century’s battle front on authoritarianism.
As we know all too well, minds that have been poisoned online can lead to bodies that carry out violence against others in real life. It is disturbing that people who call themselves patriots embrace violence and romanticize a nativist, segregated nation – and even talk about civil war. No matter how much they drape themselves with the American flag, their agenda is a dangerous one.
The value of the long view
At moments like this, when there are reasons to feel discouraged, it can be useful to have been around for 100 years like me, to have a long view on where we’ve been and to where we’ve come.
I was born less than 60 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War – closer than children born this year will be to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. More than 50 people were lynched the year I was born. Jim Crow was in full force. Federal child labor laws were more than a decade away. My teen years fell mostly during the Great Depression. This moment in time seems not so different from others.
When I got home from helping to defeat fascism in Europe, many of my fellow veterans who risked their lives to defend freedom and democracy were denied the right to vote for no reason other than prejudice against the color of their skin.
That reality is part of our shared history, even if it is now illegal to teach about it in some states.
Equally part of our shared history are the Americans who came together in the women’s movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the LGBTQ+ movement, to change our country for the better – in the face of ferocious resistance.
With all this history and conflict, what does it mean to reflect on what we call “the American way”?
Common ground is elusive
For me, and for those who gathered with me under the banner of People for the American Way at the start of the Reagan era, it meant a shared commitment to freedom of thought, expression and religion; to equality and justice and shared opportunity; to religious pluralism and the separation of church and state. Back then, even while the Christian nationalist movement was beginning to gain influence, it was still possible to find common ground where people from both political parties could meet.
Today, it is not only common ground that is elusive; it is a common grounding in reality. A common sense of decency. A common commitment to democratic rule and the peaceful transfer of power. It often feels overwhelming.
But I have faith in us. We have been deeply divided before. We had our own fascist movement before World War II. We had our own apartheid system to dismantle.
In the face of stiff and sometimes violent resistance, Americans have lifted up millions out of poverty, embraced legal equality for women and LGBTQ+ people, protected the dignity and autonomy of people with disabilities, began acting to preserve our planetary home, and recognized that “we, the people” are a beautiful multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious lot.
Fighting for ‘a more perfect union’
I’ll be honest. I don’t love that at the start of my second century, we must fight to defend so many of the gains that were achieved during my first century. But here we are. And here I am, a father and grandfather, who loves his country and its people too much to give up.
We owe one another solidarity as we assess the economic and political power of the forces arrayed against us. And we owe one another a generous measure of appreciation for all the ways we have made progress toward “a more perfect union” even as we recognize that we are far from delivering on the American promise.
I weep tears of gratitude for the young people who have made that struggle their own. Some won magnificent victories this week. Some faced heartbreaking losses. That will always be the case.
Let us renew a patriotism of purpose, of caring for one another and for our democracy. Building a shared future will always be our task. Taking the long view, I believe we can still be “a more perfect union.”