The Meaning of America


When Trump
and his followers refer to “America,” what do they mean?

see a country of white English-speaking Christians.

want a land inhabited by self-seeking individuals free to accumulate as much
money and power as possible, who pay taxes only to protect their assets from
criminals and foreign aggressors.

think mainly about flags, national anthems, pledges of allegiance, military
parades, and secure borders. 

encourages a combination of all three – tribalism, libertarianism, and loyalty. 

But the
core of our national identity has not been any of this. It has been found in the
ideals we share – political equality, equal opportunity, freedom of speech and
of the press, a dedication to open inquiry and truth, and to democracy and the
rule of law. 

We are
not a race. We are not a creed. We are a conviction – that all people are
created equal, that people should be judged by the content of their character
rather than the color of their skin, and that government should be of the
people, by the people, and for the people.

scientist Carl Friedrich, comparing Americans to Gallic people, noted that “to
be an American is an ideal, while to be a Frenchman is a fact.” 

idealism led Lincoln to proclaim that America might yet be the “last best hope”
for humankind. It prompted Emma Lazarus, some two decades later, to welcome to
American the world’s “tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe

inspired the poems of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, and the songs of Woody
Guthrie. All turned their love for America into demands that we live up to our
ideals. “This land is your land, this land is my land,” sang Guthrie. “Let
America be America again,” pleaded Hughes: “The land that never has been yet –
/And yet must be – the land where every man is free. / The land that’s mind –
the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME –.” 

idealism sought to preserve and protect our democracy – not inundate it with
big money, or allow one party or candidate to suppress votes from rivals, or
permit a foreign power to intrude on our elections.

It spawned a patriotism that once required all of us take on a fair share of the burdens of
keeping America going – paying taxes in full rather than seeking loopholes or
squirreling money away in foreign tax shelters, serving in the armed forces or volunteering
in our communities rather than relying on others to do the work.

These ideals compelled us to join together for the common
good – not pander to bigotry or divisiveness, or fuel racist
or religious or ethnic divisions. 

The idea of a common good was once widely understood and
accepted in America. After all, the U.S. Constitution was designed for “We the people” seeking to “promote the general welfare”
– not for “me the narcissist seeking as much wealth and power as possible.” 

Yet the common good seems to have disappeared. The phrase is
rarely uttered today, not even by commencement speakers and politicians.

There’s growing evidence of its loss
– in CEOs who gouge their customers and loot their corporations; Wall Street bankers who defraud their investors; athletes involved
in doping scandals; doctors who do unnecessary procedures to collect fatter
fees; and film producers and publicists who choose not to
see that a powerful movie mogul they depend on is sexually harassing and
abusing women. 

We see its loss in politicians who take donations from
wealthy donors and corporations and then enact laws their patrons want,
or shutter the government when they don’t get the partisan results
they seek.

And in a president of the United States who has repeatedly
lied about important issues, refuses to put his financial holdings
into a blind trust and personally profits from his office, and foments
racial and ethnic conflict.

This unbridled selfishness, this contempt for the public,
this win-at-any-cost mentality, is eroding America.

Without binding notions about right and wrong, only the most
unscrupulous get ahead. When it’s all about winning, only the most unprincipled
succeed. This is not a society. It’s not even a civilization, because there’s
no civility at its core. 

we’re losing our national identity it’s not because we now come in more colors,
practice more religions, and speak more languages than we once did.

It is
because we are forgetting the real meaning of America – the ideals on which our
nation was built. We are losing our sense of the common good.