Tag Archives: American Idea

Leonard Pitts Hits It Out Of The Park

Leonard Pitts has long been one of my favorite columnists. I rarely quote him on this blog for a very good reason: his writing is usually–okay, pretty much always–too good, too precise and evocative to paraphrase or summarize, and I really do try to minimize the direct quotes in these posts.

That said, Pitts made a supremely important point in a recent column, and I need to emphasize it. He began by reporting the blowback he’d received over his use, in a previous column, of the phrase “you people.” As one reader wrote him, “How dare you lump all Trump voters like that?”

His response was direct.

Well, dear reader, I cannot tell a lie. That objectifying language was no accident. Rather, it was designed to make a point. In order to understand that point, you have to understand something else:

I’m an American. By that, I don’t simply mean that I’m a U.S. citizen, though I am. But what I really mean is that I venerate the ideals on which this country was founded.

Unalienable rights. Life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Freedom of speech. Of faith. Of conscience. Government by consent of the governed. Equality before the law. Because of those ideals, America already was a revolution even before it won independence from England. Despite themselves, a band of slaveholding white men somehow founded a nation based on an aspirational, transformational declaration of fundamental human rights.

And then came the taco bowl connoisseur and his acolytes. Their values — more accurately, their lack of values — have coarsened the country, impoverished its spirit, debased what once was revered.

His use of the phrase “you people,” Pitts wrote, wasn’t  a call for division; it was employed in belated recognition of the fact that some Americans have “seceded from common cause, common ideals, common hope.”

To put that another way: If I never see another cable-news reporter doing interviews in some red-state diner to help the rest of us “understand” the people there, it will be too soon. How about we send that reporter to a blue-state shopping mall to help the people in the diner understand the rest of us? What they will learn is they have no monopoly on frustration or anger.

Pitts then enumerates what “his” people continue to believe and  those he labels “you people” don’t–freedom of speech, the rule of law, democratic ideals, facts and reason.

You people don’t honor the aspirational and transformational ideas that made this country great. My people do.

For those reasons and more, you people are not my people.

My people are Americans.

Pitts has summed up, in his far more eloquent way, what I have been calling “The American Idea.”

What the culture warriors pontificating about “American Exceptionalism” don’t understand is the actual American exceptionalism that was baked into the country’s origin: the notion that one wouldn’t be an American by virtue of status or identity, but by embracing the philosophy of the new nation, by the willingness to “pledge allegiance” to an entirely new concept of governance.

It was–as Pitts readily admits–mostly aspirational. But with fits and starts (lots more fits than most of us learned in high school history classes), we’ve tried to follow that philosophy to its logical conclusion. We extended the franchise, welcoming non-landowners, freed slaves and women into the ranks of “We the People.” Our courts (again, with fits and starts) protected the rule of law against efforts to subvert it in favor of the greedy and unscrupulous and the efforts of racial and religious bigots.

What has so many of us worried sick right now isn’t simply the realization that so many of our fellow citizens are credulous, racist and mean-spirited. There have always been folks like that (although not as vocal or empowered by rampant disinformation).

We are worried that we are losing that aspirational America, that “American Idea,” to the people Pitts calls “you people”–people who never understood or embraced it.


The American Idea

In the very first book I wrote (“What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?”), I advanced a theory I called “the American Idea.” My thesis was that one becomes an American through allegiance to what I call “the American Idea”–the philosophy of governance advanced in the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Unlike citizenries that depend upon identity–ethnic, religious, etc.– for their cohesion, one becomes an American via acceptance of those overarching ideas.

Of course,it would help if more people knew what those “overarching ideas” are…

A recent book discussed in the New York Times echoes that thesis–and suggests that it may no longer be operative.

Robert P. Jones begins the column by sharing Chesterton’s description of the American Idea.

After the British writer G. K. Chesterton visited the United States for the first time, he remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church.”

Mr. Chesterton wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding “sacred texts,” like the Declaration of Independence. He noted that the United States, unlike European countries, did not rely on ethnic kinship, cultural character or a “national type” for a shared identity.

The profoundness of the American experiment, he argued, was that it aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.

This “voluntary asset to commonly held political beliefs” is what I meant in my earlier (less eloquent) formulation, and what I still believe is the essential characteristic of that elusive thing we call “Americanism.”

But it’s badly frayed. As Jones writes,

Recent survey data provides troubling evidence that a shared sense of national identity is unraveling, with two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines. At the heart of this divide are opposing reactions to changing demographics and culture. The shock waves from these transformations — harnessed effectively by Donald Trump’s campaign — are reorienting the political parties from the more familiar liberal-versus-conservative alignment to new poles of cultural pluralism and monism.

Jones shares polling results that highlight the very different worldviews of today’s Republicans and Democrats, and concludes that America’s increasing pluralism is something of an existential challenge to many of the country’s white Protestants.

Taken as a whole, these partisan portraits highlight contrasting responses to the country’s changing demographics and culture, especially over the past decade as the country has ceased to be a majority white Christian nation — from 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today. Democrats — only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian — are embracing these changes as central to their vision of an evolving American identity that is strengthened and renewed by diversity. By contrast, Republicans — nearly three-quarters of whom identify as white and Christian — see these changes eroding a core white Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them.

Jones compares the current times with other eras in which the American fabric has been severely frayed: the Civil War, turn-of-the-century immigration upheavals, and the turmoil of the 60s. But as he points out, White Christians still saw themselves as owners of the civic table–the question was whether they would make room at that table for others.

Suddenly, they find themselves in a position in which they are not inviting “guests” to “their” table, but facing the prospect of shared ownership. That’s a new and very unsettling challenge, and the way forward is by no means clear.

The temptation for the Republican Party, especially with Donald Trump in the White House, is to double down on a form of white Christian nationalism, which treats racial and religious identity as tribal markers and defends a shrinking demographic with increasingly autocratic assertions of power.

For its part, the Democratic Party is contending with the difficulties of organizing its more diverse coalition while facing its own tribal temptations to embrace an identity politics that has room to celebrate every group except whites who strongly identify as Christian. If this realignment continues, left out of this opposition will be a significant number of whites who are both wary of white Christian nationalism and weary of feeling discounted in the context of identity politics.

This end is not inevitable, but if we are to continue to make one out of many, leaders of both parties will have to step back from the reactivity of the present and take up the more arduous task of weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves.

I firmly believe that the American Idea can still serve that purpose. But we need to build a culture that supports and nourishes that Idea, and doing that requires that we improve and emphasize civic education and that we abandon–or at least stop encouraging–racial and religious resentments.

Social Justice

I was asked to talk to a group of scholarship students yesterday about effecting social change and achieving social justice.

I began by sharing a bit of my personal history with social change (there should be some lessons to be learned from living through a significant period of American social history). In my case, I grew up Jewish during the 50s and 60s; I watched the civil rights movement “up close and personal;” I took part in the women’s  movement; and I span the time between when “gay” meant “happy” and no one ever uttered the word “homosexual” and the current fight for same-sex marriage. So I have some perspective. And as I told the students, I can attest to the fact social change is not only possible, it’s inevitable.

Change, of course, is not synonymous with improvement. I’m absolutely convinced that if we want to create progress–good change–our efforts must be framed in ways that are consistent with what I like to call our “constitutional culture.”

“Constitutional culture” is simply a shorthand for the recognition that legal systems shape worldviews. The attitudes and expectations of people ruled by the Taliban are vastly different from the attitudes of people living in a country that emphasizes values of personal liberty and political equality.

The values incorporated in the American legal system, fortunately, are entirely consistent with an emphasis on social justice.

In the wake of the horrific shooting at Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s Town Hall in Tucson, PBS’ Mark Shields made an “only in America” observation that illustrates the point. Shields said:

“This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President.”

There, in a nutshell, is what most of us would consider the triumph of American culture—the fact that the nation has moved, however haltingly, toward a vision that allows all of us to be members in good standing of our society, equal participants in our national story, whatever our religious belief, skin color, sexual orientation or national origin.  What makes us all Americans isn’t based upon any of those individual identities, but upon our allegiance to what I like to call “the American Idea”—a particular worldview based upon an understanding of government and citizenship that grew out of the Enlightenment and was subsequently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

As I told the students, my argument is pretty simple: Social justice has to be approached from within that worldview, and arguments for social change need to be framed in ways that are consistent with it—or it won’t work.

Take the recent votes on same-sex marriage. The four victories at the polls on Nov. 6th were an exciting sign that public opinion is moving in the direction of equality and social justice. Of course, fundamental rights should never have been put to a vote of the electorate in the first place.  No one got to vote on whether the government should recognize my marriage, and it is constitutionally improper to give me the power to vote on anyone else’s.

The Bill of Rights marks off certain areas of our lives where government doesn’t belong—areas where we get to make our own decisions about our lives. Very few Americans seem to understand that in our system, the issue isn’t whether the book you are reading is good or bad—it’s who gets to decide what book you read. It isn’t whether you are praying to the proper God, or praying at all—it’s who gets to decide whether and to whom you pray. Constitutionally, the issue isn’t who you marry—it’s the propriety of allowing government to decide who you marry.

It’s because our system is based upon protecting our personal autonomy—our right to decide for ourselves how we shall live our lives—that social change so often begins with the courts. When majorities insist on making decisions that are not theirs to make, we need the courts to step in and remind us that in our system, fundamental rights are not subject to popular passions. Theoretically, our courts should all be “activist” when majorities try to make decisions they are not entitled to make, but the truth is, courts inevitably reflect the social attitudes of their times. Brown v. Board wouldn’t have been decided as it was unless popular sentiment had already moved. The fact that we have a judicial system charged with protecting minorities doesn’t relieve us of the duty to create the attitudes that enable the courts to do their job.

That brings us to the importance of framing. If we want to change social attitudes, and produce a cultural environment in which desirable change can occur, we need to frame the issues in ways that appeal to our sense of what it means to be an American.

Successive groups of outsiders have done that. They’ve staked their claims as Americans to equal treatment under the law. In the process, they’ve not only won social acceptance–they’ve made America’s Constitutional culture stronger–and life better and more just for us all.







When Will We Ever Learn?

There was an anti-war song from the sixties that I always loved, titled “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The refrain was “oh, when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”

I’ve thought about that refrain a lot lately, as America has increasingly retreated into one of the ugliest nativist episodes in a history dotted with them. It’s ironic, in a way, that just as we seem poised to accept the justice of GLBT claims for equality—a recent CNN poll actually found a slim majority in favor of same-sex marriage for the first time ever!—hostility to immigrants and Muslim-Americans has become vicious. And make no mistake, this mindless lashing-out at those considered “other” threatens all of us who come from groups that have been or could be demonized, because it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be an American.

What makes Americans out of our diverse and disparate population is fidelity to a certain set of social/legal principles; a particular approach to the age-old question “how should people live together?” The very heart of that approach is our belief in judging people on the basis of who they are and what they do—on the basis of their behavior rather than their identity. It is that fundamentally American approach that has allowed the gay community—and Jews, and Catholics, and African-Americans, among others—to argue the unfairness of discriminatory stereotypes used to justify unequal treatment.

The arguments against the community center/Mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero are based on just the same sort of anti-American stereotyping that we recognize as pernicious in other contexts. Treating all Muslims as if they are terrorists is no different than treating all Germans as Nazis, all Catholics as pedophiles, all Irish as drunks, all women as weak and emotional, all gays as promiscuous. Every community that has fought for the right to have its members treated as individuals rather than as part of some monolithic whole, and every American who believes in our constitutional principles, should be standing up for our peaceful Muslim neighbors.

I know we’ve been through times like this before, but I can’t help worrying that the internet has dramatically increased the reach and immediacy of the craziness. Propaganda outlets like Fox “News” and political opportunists like Newt Gingrich play on the fears of the economically and socially insecure. It has never been easier to disseminate outright lies: Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in the U.S., the Imam of the proposed Mosque is funded by Saudi Terrorists, illegal immigrants are having “anchor babies” who will be raised as terrorists and sent back into the country to attack us…Ridiculous as these and similar claims are, there is a cohort that really does believe them.

They believe them because they want to. And in today’s media environment, it is so easy to create a “bubble” where you hear only those things you want to hear, listen only to those who will feed your paranoia.

My friends and family are tired of hearing me say this, but here’s my theory of what we are living through right now. A group of old, pissed-off white guys (and they are disproportionately old and guys—the average age of Fox’s audience is 65 and it’s largely male) woke up one morning and looked around. There was a black man in the White House, a woman running Congress, gay people getting married, brown people speaking Spanish. And they are throwing a world-class tantrum. They want “their” country back: the country that privileged white, heterosexual, Protestant males over the rest of us.

I hope and believe that this is a final eruption—a last gasp of spleen and bigotry—before their cohort dies off. But it is doing a great deal of harm while it lasts.   

When will we—and they—ever learn?

Can We Rescue Civic Literacy?

My research focuses on something I call “Constitutional Culture.”  The investigation of “constitutional culture” is considerably broader than legal analysis; it focuses upon the reciprocal relationship between our laws and legal norms and the broader culture within which those norms must be understood.

In other words, I study how constitutional values operate within a very diverse culture, how those values make people from very different backgrounds and beliefs into a single polity.  My research has  convinced me that widespread civic literacy—an acquaintance with the history and philosophy of our country—is critical to our continued ability to function as Americans.

I am also increasingly convinced that such civic literacy in short supply.Let me share with you the results of a study released just a few days ago by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs in observance of Constitution Day. The survey asked high school students questions about the United States. Here are some of those questions, and the percentage of students who answered them correctly:

What is the supreme law of the land? 28

What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution? 26

What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress? 27

How many justices are there on the Supreme Court? 10

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? 14

What ocean is on the east coast of the United States? 61

What are the two major political parities in the United States? 43

We elect a U.S. senator for how many years? 11

Who was the first President of the United States? 23

Who is in charge of the executive branch? 29

This is appalling. If you think about it, the choices originally made by the men who designed our constitutional architecture have shaped our contemporary definitions of public and private, our notions of governmental and personal responsibility, and our conceptions of human rights. They dictate the way we see issues of civic responsibility, and how we allocate collective social duties among governmental, nonprofit and private actors. In short, those initial constitutional choices are what has created our distinctively American culture. Failure to understand and appreciate those initial commitments is failure to understand the world we live in; it is failure to understand the context of our contemporary political and policy issues. Civic ignorance explains a great deal of the craziness and conflict we see around us.

All constitutions are expressions of political theory, efforts to address the most basic question of society—how should people live together? I have explored these themes in most of my publications, and they have been central to my last two books: God and Country: America in Red and Blue; and Distrust, American Style. Those books especially grew out of my efforts to understand why Americans so often seem to occupy different universes.

Actually, it hasn’t only been these last two books. When I was asked to give this lecture, I went back and reviewed much of what I’ve written over the past 15 years or so, and I was struck by the persistence of that one question: How do we live together? My very first book was “What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?” (That was written as the GOP was abandoning its traditional roots and getting more and more…whatever it is the party has become.) It was in that book that I first explored something I called—and still call—“The American Idea.” And the best way I can explain what I do—what I teach and research—is to explain that “American Idea,” because it has been a constant theme throughout my tenure at IUPUI.

My fundamental premise is that America is more an idea than a place.

Ours was the first nation not to be based upon geography, ethnicity or conquest, but upon a theory of social organization. That theory—that idea—was incorporated in our constituent documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. You might argue that America is uniquely situated to thrive in a world where trade and technology are making geography increasingly irrelevant; where travel, immigration and economics are forcing diversification of even the most insular societies.

The American Idea reflected certain assumptions about human nature and accordingly, privileged certain values—values that ought to be more explicitly recognized, discussed and understood, because they provide the common ground for our citizenship and they define our public morality. Understanding them is fundamental to our ability to understand ourselves and to construct a civic and civil society.

I wasn’t suggesting that the founders spoke with one voice, or that they embraced a single worldview. All of our governing documents were the result of passionate argument, negotiation and eventual compromise. And as remarkable as the founders’ achievement was, as enduring as the bulk of their work has proven to be, the system they established wasn’t perfect, nor was it sufficient for all time. History and context matter.

Take the issue of “original intent.” There are those who believe that the role of the courts is to identify the founders’ intent and mechanically apply it—nothing more. Such a view of the judicial function arguably misreads history. In any event, it’s impossible. Whose “original intent” are we supposed to apply? John Marshall’s? Thomas Jefferson’s? James Madison’s? And how are we to determine what that intent really was?

More to the point, constitutions are by their nature statements of basic principles to be applied to fact situations which may or may not be foreseeable at the time the principles are enunciated. Our inquiry, properly understood, must be to identify the principle or value involved and protect it in a rapidly changing world. The question isn’t: What did James Madison say about pornography on the internet? The question is: how do we apply this principle –protecting expression from government interference—to this new form of communication?

The great debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists were about the proper role of government. That debate continues today. While we have enlarged our notion of citizenship since the constitutional convention (we now include women, former slaves and non-landowners) the framework remains the same. The overarching issue remains where to strike the balance between state power and individual autonomy.

The issue, in other words, is: who decides? Who decides what book you read, what prayer you say, who you marry, how you use your property. Who decides when the state may deprive you of your liberty? How do we balance government’s right to exercise authority and enforce order against the individual’s right to be secure in his person and free in his conscience? The founders answered that question by carving out, in the Bill of Rights, things the government was forbidden to do. (As I tell my students, the Bill of Rights does not confer rights. We have those rights by virtue of being human. The Bill of Rights was meant to keep government from interfering with them.) Protection of individual liberty was an overriding value, to be circumscribed only when absolutely necessary.

Over the years, the individual rights secured to citizens by the Bill of Rights have come under attack from both the Left and Right. (Libertarians are right—political spectrum not a line but a circle, with authoritarians on both ends.) The Right’s argument is that the U.S. has gone “too far” toward individualism and individual liberties, to the detriment of authority and traditional morals. The Left’s theory is that we’ve gone too far toward individualism and individual autonomy, to the detriment of our sense of community, and the rights of the majority. In both views, the good of the whole (as they define it) must take precedence over the rights of individuals.

That may sound nice, but what is the “common good”? And more importantly, who gets to decide what it is? What are the “rights” of the majority? How do we determine them? When we ask those questions, we immediately see that there are two very different answers possible. In a totally majoritarian system—the system too many of my students think we have—the rights of the majority at any given time are what the majority decides they are. In such a system, the only issue will be one of accuracy and definition: what shall constitute a majority for purposes of legitimizing the use of state power? How can we be certain the votes accurately reflect citizen sentiment? Who shall have the right to vote?

In a truly majoritarian system, voters would have the right to decide what books are printed and sold, which religious practices would be tolerated, how much authority the police could exercise, and so forth. The only limits to government’s power over individuals would be those sanctioned from time to time by the voters, and those limits could be changed at any time by a subsequent vote. A truly majoritarian system would certainly reflect “community values” at any given time. It would also impose those values on those who do not share them. Holders of minority opinions, dissenters from the prevailing wisdom, would have no recognized or enforceable right to be different.

Such a system is precisely what the founders feared: it’s what they meant by “tyranny of the majority.”

The second answer to the question of majority rights is the one chosen by the founders of our republic. In the system they bequeathed us, the rights of the majority are derivative of our individual liberties; the right to participate equally with one’s peers to make those decisions which are properly assigned to majority vote; the right to be protected from those who would threaten our physical safety or otherwise deprive us of social benefits to which we are entitled; the right to have our agreements with each other enforced and our disputes mediated—all without favoritism or bias. And of course, there is the right which Justice Louis Brandeis once called the greatest right conferred by a civilized society—the right to be left alone.

History provides us with plenty of examples of what happens when the “good of the many” is piously invoked to outweigh the rights of individuals. A paraphrase from George Orwell’s Animal Farm sums it up best: Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.

Today, we have groups on the political right who “know best” what books we should read, what prayers we should say, and whom we should love. We see groups on the political left endorsing “hate speech” legislation and censorship of materials they believe to be offensive to women or African-Americans or others. Both want to use the power of the state to impose “goodness” on the rest of us. The problem is, they want to be the ones who define goodness. If they had even a rudimentary civic education, they would know that under our form of government they are absolutely prohibited from doing so. In our system, individuals have the right to make their own political and moral decisions, even when most other people believe those decisions are wrong.

When people fail to understand that the central issue is the use and abuse of power, they confuse support for constitutional rights with support for unpopular uses of those rights. The issue is who decides what books you read—not the merits of the books you choose. A lawyer who represents a child molester is not “endorsing” child molestation. He or she is upholding the right of every citizen to the due process of law. An insistence on a woman’s right to choose abortion is not the equivalent of a “pro-abortion” position—many women who oppose abortion nevertheless do not believe that government has the right to make that decision for individual women. An insistence upon freedom of the press most certainly does not translate into approval of anything the press may choose to publish. Voltaire said it best: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The central issue for civil libertarians is the power of the state—or the majority—to compel our behaviors or infringe our liberties. When people do not understand that, our public discourse is impoverished and ultimately unproductive.

Of course, individual rights carry with them civic responsibilities. One reason citizenship was originally restricted to landowners was the founders’ belief that citizenship required a proper understanding of one’s responsibilities, and the elitist notion that only “substantial” folks were prepared to assume the burdens of citizenship.

While the American legal system and the American media frame most issues in terms of the rights involved, the lack of emphasis on responsibilities shouldn’t obscure their importance. Our entire system depends upon the willingness of citizens to exercise responsibility: to display the public morality without which government and society cannot function. Just as the media focuses on crime, rarely commenting on the far more common incidents of lawful behavior, we tend to pay far more attention to social pathologies than we do to the fact that most Americans do continue to demonstrate the values and civic virtues necessary to the maintenance of an open and orderly society.

It is what we do when people don’t meet expectations for responsible citizenship that defines our commitment to civil liberties and the rule of law, and discloses our familiarity or lack thereof with the basic premises of American government.

Unfortunately, too many Americans who don’t know American history or philosophy  favor essentially totalitarian responses. The people you see on TV and at town halls  spouting anti-government rhetoric are the same ones who demand government fixes for things that offend them. 

 These are the people who claim parents aren’t monitoring what their kids watching on TV, so the government should ban inappropriate content. They are the people who are convinced that today’s children aren’t getting “proper” religious instruction, so the public schools—government schools—should make them pray. If movies are getting too racy, they demand that the government censor them. And on and on.

 Aside from the hypocrisy, these “easy” answers run afoul of our most basic constitutional values. People demanding these measures in the name of “American values” display an appalling ignorance of those very values.

 Civic literacy requires an acquaintance with basic constitutional principles. They aren’t mysterious or difficult. As I wrote in that first book,

  • There is the value of liberty. Americans believe in our inalienable right to hold our own opinions, to think for ourselves to assemble with our friends, to cast our votes, to pray or not—all free of government interference or coercion.
  • There is the value of equality before the law. This is not to be confused with the fuzzy notion that we are all somehow interchangeable. It is not to be confused with the belief held by some religions that all people are equally worthwhile. This is a more limited proposition—the notion that government must apply the same rules to all its citizens, that groups do not have rights, individuals do. It was a radical notion in 1776. It is fundamental to the way we understand ourselves and our society today.
  • We value the marketplace of ideas, the supreme importance of our ability to communicate with each other, unfettered by government censorship.
  • I said then that we value government legitimacy and the rule of law; I hope we still do, although we’ve come through a depressing and very damaging eight years.
  • And I hope we still value the civic virtues that are necessary to the conduct of responsible government, although some of them seem in short supply lately: honesty, courage, kindness, civility, mutual respect and tolerance.

 In a country where, increasingly, people read different books and newspapers, visit different blogs, watch different television programs, attend different churches and even speak different languages—where the information and beliefs we all share are diminishing and our variety and diversity are growing—these are the core values Americans have historically agreed upon. That agreement is what Americans have in common. They are the values we must teach our children.

 Let me just conclude this talk by reading from the afterword of my most recent book, which—among other things—elaborated on the importance of being able to trust our government to be faithful to our constitutional values. Those values are what create e pluribus unum: they allow us to make “one” out of our “many” in this age of dramatically increasing diversity. (As you will see, I’m still harping on the American Idea—I’m sort of a broken record that way.)

 “Most countries have gone through periods of turmoil, corruption or worse. I know of none that have escaped episodes of poor—sometimes disastrous—leadership. And as anyone who follows the news knows, democracies are hardly immune; the electoral process is no guarantee that you won’t get leaders who are ill-equipped to govern. All governments are human enterprises, and like all human enterprises, they will have their ups and downs. In the United States, however, the consequences of the “down” periods are potentially more serious than in more homogeneous nations, precisely because this is a country based not upon identity but upon covenant. Americans do not share a single ethnicity, religion or race. We never have. We don’t share a worldview. We don’t even fully share a culture. What we do share is a set of values, and when those whom we elect betray those values, we don’t just lose trust. We lose a critical part of what it is that makes us Americans.

Policy prescriptions and ten-point plans are all well and good, but at the end of the day, our public policies must be aligned with and supportive of our most fundamental values, and the people we elect must demonstrate that they understand, respect and live up to those values.

 As we have seen, the word “values” means different things to different people. In the wake of the agonizingly close 2004 Presidential election, pundits told us that voters had come out on November 4th to vote for “values.” What they meant by values—opposition to reproductive choice and equal rights for gays and lesbians, and nationalistic jingoism masquerading as patriotism—was the antithesis of the American values most of us really do care about. Let me be quite explicit about what I believe to be genuine American values—values that have been shaped by our constitutional culture, values that are shared by the millions of Americans who have been dismayed and dispirited by the revelations of the past eight years. They are the values that infuse the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the values that are absolutely central to the American Idea.

  • Americans believe in justice and civil liberties—understood as equal treatment and fair play for all citizens, whether or not they look like us, and whether or not we agree with them or like them or approve of their reading materials, religious beliefs or other life choices.
  • Americans believe in the rule of law. And we believe that no one is above the law— most emphatically including those who run our government. We believe the same rules should apply to everyone who is in the same circumstances, that allowing interest groups to “buy” more favorable rules or other special treatment with campaign contributions, political horse-trading or outright bribery is un-American.
  • Americans believe in our inalienable right to speak our minds, even when—perhaps especially when—we disagree with the government. We understand that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism, just as mindless affirmation of the choices made by those in power can wreak untold damage on the country. Those who care about America enough to speak out against policies they believe to be wrong or corrupt are not only exercising their rights as citizens, they are discharging their most sacred civic responsibilities.
  • Americans believe that when politicians play to the worst of our fears and prejudices, using “wedge issues” to marginalize immigrants, or gays, or blacks, or “east coast liberals” (a time-honored code word for Jews) in the pursuit of political advantage, they are being un-American and immoral.
  • Americans believe in the importance of reason, the need for tolerance, and respect for evidence, including scientific evidence. We may go “off the reservation” from time to time, especially when the weight of the evidence points to results we don’t like, but eventually, Americans will place reason and compromise above denial and intransigence in the conduct of our collective affairs.
  • Americans believe, to use the language of the nation’s Founders, in “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” (even European mankind).  
  • Finally, Americans believe in the true heartland of this country, which is not to be found on a map. The real heartland is made up of all the Americans who struggle every day to provide for their families, dig deep into their pockets to help the less fortunate, and understand their religions to require goodwill and loving kindness. The men and women who make up that heartland understand that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness. They know that the way you play the game is more important, in the end, than whether you win or lose. And they know that, in America, the ends don’t justify the means.

 Americans’ ability to trust one another depends upon our ability to keep faith with those values.

Life in a liberal democratic polity is never going to be harmonious. Harmony, after all, wasn’t the American Idea. Despite the dreams of the communitarians, we aren’t all going to share the same telos; at most, we will have what John Rawls called an “overlapping consensus.”[i] In a country that celebrates individual rights and respects individual liberty, there will always be dissent, differences of opinion, and struggles for power. But there are different kinds of discord, and they aren’t all equal. When we argue from within the constitutional culture—when we argue about the proper application of the American Idea to new situations or to previously marginalized populations—we strengthen our bonds and learn how to bridge our differences. When our divisions and debates are between powerful forces that want to rewrite our most basic rules and citizens without the wherewithal to enforce them, we undermine the American Idea and erode social trust.

 At the end of the day, diversity (however we want to define it) is not the problem. And that’s a good thing, because the fact is that increasing diversity is inescapable. The real issue is whether it is too late to restore our institutional infrastructure and make our government trustworthy again, whether we can once again reinvigorate the American Idea and make it work in a brave new world characterized by nearly instantaneous communications, unprecedented human mobility, and the twin challenges of climate change and international terrorism. There are hopeful signs, but the jury is still out.”



[i] John Rawls,  Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press, 1993).