As the shutdown of the United States Government continues into its second day, many grand questions have been posed by officials, the media, and regular citizens. How do we proceed during this crisis? Where is the true leadership needed from Washington, D.C.? How long will this last, and what could happen?
But among the din of questions flying about, there is a rising crescendo of several which evoke a deep sense of plaintive astonishment, and regret. These questions are being asked by Americans, and the rest of the world. How did it all come to this? How is it possible that the United States of America, the leader of the free world, and the most powerful, richest, and greatest nation on the planet, come to this moment of paralysis?
These questions are not merely expressions of frustration. They are also, perhaps, illustrations of the conceptual prison bars which are now confining the nation in a certain mindset from which it cannot break free.
Leaving aside, for a moment, such terms as Democrat, Republican, Conservative, Liberal, Rich, and Poor, let us instead focus on larger words and concepts. The first being Unity. The specific usage, on the present topic, is United, as in the United States of America.
Regardless of years, indeed decades, of growing internal division since the end of World War II, this nation has struggled immensely to project an image, to the world and to itself, that it is united. The fixation on this image by placing such importance on it was first emphasized by the Reagan Administration. It was an attempt to give the impression that the nation had moved beyond the divisive decades of the 1960s and 1970s, when such challenges as the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Civil Rights struggle, and economic recessions tore the country apart.
President Reagan’s message made the public feel good, and permitted them to erase the bad memories of previous decades in order to look to the future and move on. It had a great effect, and the Republican Party embraced this concept as a continuing rallying cry. Eventually, so did the Democratic Party. As the decades went by, and the nation was faced with new historical challenges, such as the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, the tech boom, the housing boom, 9/11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, each of these moments allowed the government to proclaim how the people were united.
Indeed, every President, regardless of party, has greatly emphasized how united as a nation we are.
Whenever there were serious divisions, be they economic like the Los Angeles riots of the 1990s, or political such as the national elections of 2000, the differences were always dismissed with such terms as the natural disagreements of a free country, no nation is perfect, and we are still a nation of laws. But throughout the decades, despite all these divisions, we were still united. That is what we kept telling ourselves.
Now that we are in the second national shutdown in less than 20 years, the first thing we all need to do is accept that the United States of America is not a united country. We must free ourselves from this national pride which we have, that we are truly united in such fundamental concepts as liberty, equality (economic and social), compassion, and fellowship.
Because if this shutdown has taught us anything, it is that we are most certainly not a united people.
There is no shame in a nation, any nation, admitting to itself that it is suffering from deep internal divisions. Every nation on the planet is suffering from this, including (with all due respect) the Vatican.
If Pope Francis is able to admit to the world, and himself, that the Holy See has serious internal problems on all political, financial, social, and theological levels, isn’t it possible for the US to do the same?
For clarification, it is not sufficient for the American public and its leaders to say yes we have a few problems, but every country has them, we are still a great country, and we are still united. This does not constitute facing your internal problems. It is merely a recipe for denial, which postpones the divisions and allows them to fester and grow into immense problems. Like shutting down the national government.
President Obama was elected under a tremendous wave of popular support, with the deep hope and belief by many Americans that he was a transformational candidate. That somehow, because of his many talents and life experiences, combined with a firm belief in national unity, that he could somehow overcome the historical divisions of both Washington and the country. As we all now realize, and as the President himself has admitted, despite his great efforts to do so, such was not the case.
Almost half a year after he took office, and realized that the stubborn lines of extremism which existed in the national government could not be overcome by intellectual reason and civic responsibility, President Obama made a profound reference to unity. He described the concept of the United States, in terms of becoming a more perfect Union, as a work in progress. That it is like the Northern Star, a fixed, heavenly, aspirational goal for the nation to strive towards.
Inspiring words no doubt. But there comes a time for every human being, every family, and every society, to stop focusing on whatever noble external goal they are walking towards, and to sit down by the side of the road to take a long honest look into themselves to see if they have the will to make the journey.
The present government shutdown (and the potential fight over the debt ceiling which is approaching fast) is an immense reminder that there are deep social, economic, political, and ethical divisions in this nation, stretching back more than a century. There is no single election, law, technology, entertainment, or amount of money which can completely remove these divisions.
Once we accept this reality, and finally discard the pretense that we are a united nation, we can then explore more creative measures to deal with these problems which would otherwise have been discarded.
For example, perhaps it is time for the United States not to think in terms of political parties, or national and state governments. Perhaps it is not even necessary to think about the 1% and the 99%. Maybe it is time to think in terms of cross sections of peoples. Sometimes this would encourage balkanization, with divisions along racial, religious, and socio-economic lines.
But there are other concepts around which different sections of American society can coalesce, and the nation should take time to explore them.