Gerson: Redefining the spirit of liberty
WASHINGTON – The first sentence of Charles de Gaulle's Memoir reads: "All my life I have thought of France in a certain way." This is a presidential election, more than any I can remember, that has invited Americans to view their country in a certain way — actually, in one of two very different ways.
Donald Trump's vision is unremittingly dark — in his words, a "crippled America." A nation of closed factories and crumbling bridges, flooded by illegal immigrants who are taking jobs and committing crimes, threatened by cop killers and jihadists, exploited by foreign competitors and humiliated by the stupidity of its governing class.
Trump devotes almost no attention to describing his ideal America, but his Eden is somewhere in the past, requiring recovered greatness. His stated goal is the restoration of a lost country, which he defines as a certain land, and people and way of life. Liberal ideology may have contributed to the mess, but the main problem is failed leadership. "If we don't get tough," argues Trump, "and if we don't get smart, we're not going to have our country anymore. There will be nothing, absolutely nothing, left." And since the ruling class will not surrender power willingly, it must be taken by an uprising of the forgotten.
Hillary Clinton is also not in the vision business, but she seems to assume a conventionally liberal conception of the country — America the evolving. A nation with a flawed past moving toward liberal ideals of tolerance, openness and opportunity, helped along by an activist government that secures individual rights against various forms of social oppression and works for greater economic equality.
Clinton's Eden is clearly in the future. Her stated goal is to "break down the barriers that hold Americans back, including the barriers of bigotry and discrimination." America becomes more itself as it moves toward progressive values. Clinton cannot promise revolution, being constrained by effectively being the incumbent. But Clinton, as a sober, levelheaded Midwesterner, would not be comfortable in a revolutionary role anyway. And, besides, a more liberal future is made inevitable by politically advantageous demographic change.
America the "crippled." America the evolving. These are two, parallel, non-intersecting convictions about our country. You might think the adherents of these views would have something to learn from each other. But there has been no real dialogue — even real argument — between them. We have seen a national election conducted mainly in Twitter-sized ad hominems.
Though the trend is far from complete and differs among minority voters, Trump has accelerated America's movement toward political division by class and education. Many blue-collar voters, particularly white men, have been drawn strongly to his message. Many white-collar voters, particularly college-educated women, have been turned off by it. What used to be a culture war is increasingly a class conflict — though the two generously overlap.
This type of clash is bitter in its own, special way — bringing out deep resentments toward elites and sneering condescension by elites. Gun control is a good example. Many defenders of gun rights are not merely interpreting the Second Amendment; they are defending a way of life that they believe to be under siege. Many city and suburb dwellers have almost no contact with the world of rural America, and limited sympathy for it. Gun control advocates quote statistics while many gun owners feel they are protecting a heritage. We can see the political result.
Who among our political leaders is calling for mutual understanding and practicing it? This would involve the concession of truth on both sides.
It is true that America has two economies — one for those with the skills favored by globalization and one for those who don't. At the bottom of the Great Recession in 2010, the unemployment rate for people without a high school degree was 15 percent. For college graduates, it was 4.7 percent. A portion of America is in a more or less permanent recession, no matter what the stock market does.
It is true many of the beneficiaries of globalization have little contact with those who bear its costs.
It is true that many blue-collar and rural men and women have witnessed their way of life decline, seen the sources of their deepest beliefs dismissed by the broader culture, and increasingly feel (in Arlie Russell Hochschild's phrase) like "strangers in their own land."
But it is also true that for some Americans, the idealization of a lost America has little appeal. If you are an African-American, or a gay person, or someone in a racially mixed marriage, or a woman seeking a leadership role in society, your life has improved greatly over the last few decades. For many Americans the full promise of liberty has arrived lately.
It is true that an ethnic definition of the American community is dangerous and unsustainable. Is the American "us" determined by skin pigment and Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage, as George Wallace would have described it? That view is doomed by demography and condemned by morality. Can the American "us" be joined by the affirmation of American ideals? Then it is hardly helpful to argue (wrongly) that migrants are somehow prone to crime and rape.
It is true that discrimination against a religion — any religion — is inconsistent with American ideals and counterproductive as counterterrorism. As a thought exercise, imagine an American president responding to an attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, with words of condemnation for Islam, casting suspicion on Muslim neighbors. There could be widespread and terrible violence.
The bitterness of the current campaign has guaranteed one certain outcome. The next American president will be someone who a large portion of the country finds sympathetic, and a large portion of the country finds utterly alien, even illegitimate.
Urging national unity is incumbent on any president. But our political culture is sicker and more damaged than usual. The worlds we live in are further apart. A message of national healing — presenting the vision of a single nation — has seldom been more urgent.
This will require a skill the candidates have not displayed in the current campaign — a capacity for empathy. As president, they must somehow be able to imagine and address the fears and resentments they have fed in the worst moments of their own campaigns. The ideals of America are a bridge wider than its current division. But they will need to be imaginatively and persistently applied by a leader showing a sudden and unexpected aptitude. A heavy bet on an unlikely outcome.
Where to look for inspiration? In 1944, speaking to a group of newly minted citizens in New York's Central Park, Judge Learned Hand explained his vision of America's most basic commitment. "What then is the spirit of liberty?" he asked, "I cannot define it. I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit that weighs their interests alongside its own without bias ... the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten, that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest."
Hardly the spirit of our times, but seldom more needed.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.