Five Things We Can Do to Get America Back on Track
I got up at 1:00 AM to watch the Artemis rocket launch this morning -- being old makes waking up in the middle of the night easy.
The launch made me nostalgic. The mission that landed the first people on the moon – Apollo 11 – left earth on my 10th birthday. I got up four days later up in the middle of the night to watch the first walk on the moon, too. I wake up for these events because NASA and these flights are the best of us – and I am desperate to tap into their “exhaust” to draw inspiration and renew my faith in America.
I grew up watching and adoring all the World War II movies, because that too was the best of us. Not just the soldiers, but also the political leaders who largely put partisanship aside for the duration. And the women and Black people who moved into industry and served as nurses and joined the services as well -- and put up with unending prejudice and harassment during the war, and a forgetful nation immediately after.
Going back even further into our joint past, the last soldier who served in the Civil War died the year I was born. He was fighting for the most just war cause ever – the abolition of chattel slavery – in which President Lincoln and millions of northerners belatedly linked arms with Harriett Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretia Mott, William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, and numerous other heroes in that great battle that was also the best of us.
The nostalgia is fleeting though, as I’m rudely jolted out of this old man’s reverie by the thought that the state I live in, the state from which Apollo 11 and Artemis were both launched, has Ron DeSantis as its recently reelected Governor. The state of temporary hopefulness generated by the midterms and rocket launches, interrupted by the near-constant reminders of how far we’ve fallen, have dominated my consciousness since January 2016, and frankly it is wearying.
I don’t want to spend the rest of my life checking CNN in the middle of the night to get the state of Senate races, to see what crazy act DeSantis just pulled as Governor -- or God forbid, as President -- to find out how many mass shooting events happened since I last checked, or to see if my social security gets siphoned off to billionaires just before I start drawing it.
And that’s from the perspective of a white male baby boomer. I can’t imagine the sheer terror, disappointment, helplessness, and heartache many women, people of color and LGBTQ people feel every waking day because the events that impact them negatively never really stop. To think that in America thousands of people are spending billions of dollars basically non-stop in an effort to make life worse for the majority of our citizens! This is a circumstance I could not have contemplated in my worst nightmares growing up. And for my role in allowing this situation to exist by inaction, I am ashamed.
Now I realize you are probably having a hard time with me apparently glorifying war and space travel. That is not my intention. I seek to glorify that which is clearly the best of us regardless of its form, the constant striving for something just out of reach that is better than any other people ever achieved, the doing of the right thing not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
That striving used to be the best of us – and we’ve given up on that. The best we attempt now is holding back the authoritarian tide – and I’m sorry to tell you – that motivation is insufficient – as well as being beneath us and a betrayal to those who came before us as well as total indifference to those who will succeed us on this earth. The best of us used to be about reaching for something bigger and higher than ourselves even though it always exceeded our grasp – in fact that was sort of the point.
Now we’ve living through Trump and DeSantis on the one side of a seemingly never-ending tag team wrestling match from hell, with Biden and Pelosi on the other. The two noted Republicans are truly abominable cretins, but the Democrats I named are only slightly better – and in my calculus – far from the best of us.
We may have needed Biden and Pelosi, but we don’t any longer. This is the lesson I draw from the midterms. Both are multimillionaires – after careers in government service! I had a career in government service, saved prudently, but somehow missed out on the bonanza. Funny, every Senator retires as a multimillionaire on a government salary. Don’t you ever wonder how that happens, and what price we pay as citizens as a result?
The midterm results do not vindicate Democratic party strategy. Weary voters like you and I saved their asses, again. And regardless of the breathless press reports, with the midterms we didn’t turn some sociopolitical corner, gain some notable advantage over the right, reenergize the nation, or return things to normal -- much less did we begin charting a new path towards a better future.
The underlying U.S. sociopolitical trends – from gerrymandering, to the Supreme Court’s blatant wrongheadedness, to increasing impunity for rich and/or well-connected lawbreakers, to state and local attempts to restrict voting rights, to increasing calls for censorship – continue unabated – as we’ve put no force in place to stop these anti-democratic actions. These efforts – and others worse yet -- will continue to be funded by dark money and pushed relentlessly by the Republican oligarchy because it benefits them to do so, and we are permitting them to continue unchecked.
Who’s still being the best of America, then? Well, it’s Stacey Abrams. Katie Hobbs. Gretchen Whitmer. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. On a collective level, March for Our Lives, Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ movements. Notice any trend there? Women and people of color are the driving energy defending America and keeping the flame alive. We owe these courageous Americans a debt of gratitude because they stepped up and took their rightful places in the long line of good people trying to leave the world better than they found it.
And as laudable as that is, it’s not enough. White men are not stepping up – they are waiting this one out – checking on their 401ks and voting – for the most part – for the candidate portrayed by the press as most likely to increase the value of their portfolios. By waiting this war out in some weird twist on conscientious objector status, white men have sold themselves out to the oligarchy – they have become the fellow travelers of autocracy and the useful idiots of neoliberalism – regardless of how they actually vote!
What do the fence sitters need to do? Well, first use their voting power to change the candidate slates. We deserve better than Trump, DeSantis, and Biden as our choices for 2024 – and we can do something about that. Most of us, and especially white male progressives, need to get more involved locally, influence the primaries, vote in the primaries – and some of us who can afford the risk need to run for office at the appropriate level.
Second, we need white men to join one or more justice movement. When they do, they’ll be different, do different and feel different. And other white men will notice and be influenced and inspired, creating a ripple effect that matters locally and nationally. The press will notice too – because the only protest movements the New York Times will get behind are those with lots of white men in them.
I lived through the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam anti-war movement, and, let’s be honest, it’s when white northerners got killed in the south that the press came alive, and when white college students joined the anti-war movement and got killed at Kent State that those movements gained the power they needed to force societal change.
It is precisely because white men do not now participate significantly in the Black Lives Matter movement that police departments feel free to brutalize its protestors, and the mainstream press feels sufficiently justified in withholding its imprimatur of legitimacy, that the movement fails to totally catch fire and become self-sustaining.
And most importantly, the relative paucity of white men in these justice movements allows the right to paint them as anti-American and Antifa-dominated. It is a fact of power – which Democrats and progressives would do well to get more comfortable pursuing – that every white man’s face that joins a justice movement pulls the props out from the existing order, makes fascist propaganda much less powerful, and exposes the rot behind and within the American right. As a white man, I feel compelled to leverage my privilege by fighting back against these injustices and embracing these causes, and to impel my demographic cohort to do likewise before it’s too late.
Alas, these will be necessary but not sufficient actions to save democracy, much less propel us on the path towards the better world we seek.
After these movements are reinforced as we note here, they will need to be combined to increase their power.
Third, we will need to use our combined economic power to influence the oligarchs, dark money people, and the large economic entities who are not politically active but quite content to take advantage of a basically tax-free corporate state.
And fourth, while we’re doing all this, we’ll need to start dreaming again of the things we want, the things that could and should be, and start sorting out what kind of society we need to get us there – because to muddle along on our current path takes us ever further from these things.
Fifth and finally, it’s high time we hold our elites and officials accountable – but we do that first by holding ourselves accountable to the well-known standards and examples of America at her best.