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Further Reflections on America’s Path Forward

The country’s political environment has left many wanting to live in communities of like-minded individuals or to be left alone. But as Jefferson made clear, turning away from the public arena will only make things worse.

Young,Man,Standing,Alone,On,Edge,Of,Footbridge,And,Staring
(Shutterstock)
The reader feedback of the essay I wrote last week has been voluminous and gratifying. The reason for this, I think, is that we are all a little shell-shocked by the chaotic state of the world. So much anger and aggression, so many apocalyptic pronouncements and books. Most people look at the last 20 years, and particularly the last six, and ask, what happened? Where are we now? What comes next? Most thoughtful people are pretty sure of the direction they want the country to pursue, but are equally uncertain about what their own role, if any, should be. What does it mean to be a citizen of the United States in 2021?

I suggested that there are four ways of coping with the American “situation,” by which I mean the political paralysis, hyperpartisanship, widespread disillusionment and the multiplier effect of echo-chamber cable media channels. The first method is Escapism — just turn away from it all in disgust or despair and binge watch Law and Order. It’s possible to enjoy the good life in America without ever thinking about government or public policy. Distraction is more satisfying than engagement at any level. A plague on both your houses.

The second option I called the Enlightenment of One — America is big enough, prosperous enough and free enough to allow me to pursue happiness in my own way, even if it is at odds with the community around me. Just leave me alone with my toys, gadgets, entertainments and private pursuit of enlightenment and self-actualization, and I will live according to what I regard as the ideals of the American republic. Of course, I wish the rest of you would see the light, but it’s not worth my trying to convince you. If you will just leave me alone and don’t get in my way, we’ll be just fine.

The third option is the Voluntary Community of like-minded individuals — friends in my own zip code, state, friends scattered around the country or even beyond, friends in cyberspace. Thanks to the electronification of civilization, we can maintain a vibrant virtual community that shares a set of values and principles, provides solace and encouragement, and makes us feel less isolated and alone. I may be a Trump conservative in a blue state, but my real community is not tied to the place where I live and work. I may be a Bernie liberal in a hard red state, but my real community is one I have built or joined (all over the place) with those who want the same things for America. I like my book club. I play chess on Zoom with my friend from Rome.

The fourth option is to Get into the Arena. Engagement is the answer, not escape, not a self-serving and self-protecting solipsism. If you want to live in a republic, you are going to have to fight for it. Of course, it’s a hassle. But engagement is the price of human freedom.

Most of the people who have taken the time to write to me have said they find my analysis “sadly on target.” They place themselves mostly in options two (the Enlightenment of One) and three (the voluntary community of like-minded individuals). Quite a few have written to say that escapism is now the only answer: thank goodness for Netflix and Amazon Prime. Others have confessed, with various levels of guilt, that they are embracing escapism, but only temporarily. They are, they say, taking a much-needed break from American politics and the culture wars. Although they do not think Joe Biden is the answer to our problems, people of both political parties agree that he has brought the political temperature down, governed according to constitutional norms and avoided issuing incendiary pronouncements that force the whole country to respond. This allows us the opportunity to turn away from the whole mess for a while, because in some very limited and nonpartisan sense, we know the country is in good hands again.

I have been amazed by how many people have declared themselves best suited to the Enlightenment of One. In the third decade of the 21st century, America delivers so many possibilities of self-actualization that it is possible to be well-read, well-informed, historically grounded, fit and culturally satisfied without much contact with the rest of humanity. I don’t have to go to the cinema metroplex to see one of the movies currently being screened; I order up whatever I want — when I want, in the sublime privacy of my home theater. There is a path of satisfaction for everyone. You can adopt a vegan or a paleolithic diet. You can watch BBC miniseries or mixed martial arts. You can vacation at Disneyland or the Aspen Institute, in Las Vegas or Los Alamos.

In the Arena


One woman who wrote to me wanted clarification on option four (In the Arena). She said, “My problem with ‘The Man in the Arena’ has always been that gladiatorial combat serves little purpose except the glorification of individual egos and the entertainment of the ruling classes. We don't actually need an arena at all.” Someone, she said, “has to stay out of the arena and do the work of, you know, raising the children and tending the fields. People need to do the work of maintaining the civilization. We need people to work in mid-level government jobs to help keep the lights on and the schools open. Not everyone can devote their time and energy to becoming a ‘voice.’”

I take her point. How we “constitute” ourselves — the daily life of our civilization — is as important as how we formally govern ourselves or are governed by elites. I agree that most of the governing in the United States takes place below the radar of the national political circus. Much of the best governmental innovation is taking place at the local and state level, and we ought not to see the world, even the world of governance, through the lens of major media, especially cable media.

Perhaps invoking Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “man in the arena” speech, delivered at the Sorbonne on April 23, 1910, was a mistake. We have just had a gladiatorial leader who swept in on a white horse (actually, it was a gold escalator) and it didn’t work out so well. At this point in our constitutional history, when the presidency has evolved from a very limited entity (Jefferson with his single secretary living alone in the White House) to what some have termed the Unitary Executive, a sovereign president who operates with almost no enforceable constraints, it would probably be a mistake to seek a solution to our problems in the hands of a strongman (or woman) president. On the contrary, almost everyone believes we now must dial back the powers of the presidency and reinforce existing guardrails (separation of powers, for example, or checks and balances) and perhaps erect additional ones.

Still, I think every one of us at times wishes for the sudden arrival in the public square (a term from Greek politics rather than a metaphor for rodeo or gladiatorial combat) of a charismatic individual of great enlightenment and purpose, who will have the character, the will, the administrative ability and the oratorical gifts to lead us out of the morass. Someone with the political suavity of FDR, the elegance and elan of JFK, the strenuous optimism of Theodore Roosevelt, the geniality of Ronald Reagan, the idealism of Barack Obama, and the accumulated stature of Washington or Eisenhower. Good luck with that.

The NFL and Two Americas


Millions of people of both parties now regard the United States as at least two countries. They distrust the other one and demonize both its leaders and followers. About half belong to the party that respects NFL football players who kneel during the national anthem; the other half are appalled by the same (silent) protest and speak (loudly) about it to their own segment of the population. About half the country wants a single-payer universal health-care system and says, over and over again, that we are the only major democracy without a guaranteed health-care system. The other half believes that a single-payer system is a slippery road to socialism and the death of America.

Some, including serious historians and political thinkers, believe that we are in an undeclared civil war (which might be characterized as Martha’s Vineyard versus the Ozarks, or John Lennon versus Lee Greenwood) and that what has been a cold civil war (Carl Bernstein’s trope) is likely to heat up in a series of insurrectionist events that will make the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, seem like a frat party that got a little out of control. Others believe that the United States is undergoing a slow-motion nervous breakdown, the collapse of our republican constitutional system, and that it is unlikely that we can turn things around. Their view is that the phase of American history when we could legitimately call ourselves a democratic republic is now over, that the future is the complete triumph of dark money, populist authoritarianism and perhaps regional secession.

Still most Americans are not quite so pessimistic about the future, but are perplexed and anxious, and when pressed to make suggestions about how we could recover as a republic, they generally throw up their hands or make idealistic suggestions that even they know are never going to right the ship.

Meanwhile, those who know that the right thing to do is to suit up and take their place in the public square are reluctant to do so for good reasons. The verbal violence that now characterizes even the public meetings of the city commission or the local school board — the shouting, the sneering, the death threats, the ambushing at the grocery store — can hardly be expected to attract thoughtful, decent and civil individuals to public service. The cynicism and sense of futility that most Americans feel about the res publica (the public thing, as opposed to private pursuits) causes them to retreat to the three easier paths.

And yet we know in our hearts that Jefferson was right: In the long run, turning away will only make things worse. A republic requires its citizens to exhibit eternal vigilance. It’s not enough to vote every couple of years, pay taxes and renew your vehicle tags. According to Jefferson, whenever the citizenry turns away (to options one, two and three), the people least deserving of public trust get their hands on the levers of power and they serve themselves and their cronies at the expense of the good of the commonwealth. Getting into the arena does not necessitate wearing Kevlar or a helmet.

Jefferson believed that civility and good manners are infectious; that by showing what he called “artificial good humor” on all occasions, we not only teach others the art of polite disagreement, but our civility has a measurable shaming effect on those disposed to be more boisterous. In other words, getting into the arena doesn’t require a white horse. It can consist of letters to the editor, blog posts, comments in social media threads, letters to your Congressional representatives or the governor or the mayor, speaking up thoughtfully at a town meeting, getting yourself on a school board or city committee.

All the positive pieces of mail I have received have come from those who believe the answer is no longer in the national arena, but in communities much closer to home, in local, county and state government. The future may turn out to be more decentralized than we thought, and in spite of the digital revolution, many are likely to relocate to that part of America that best represents their value systems.

Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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