Memorial Day, patriotism and the search for an American political consensus
Political polarization is an easy trap to fall into. Although setting a national debt ceiling is apparently too dangerous to leave in the hands of Congress, I agree with President Biden and am impressed by his deft efforts to forge a compromise to avoid default of payment. I don’t like the pieces of the bill, but I admire the efforts of the president and the speakers to find a compromise. I learned to seek and value consensus, although my political consciousness was born in protest and civil disobedience. About half a century ago, when I was in high school in Brooklyn and later as a college student in Indiana, I was an anti-war activist who helped lead protests against the war in Vietnam. During my senior year of high school, I was the head of the James Madison High School Coalition to End the War. In Franklin, Indiana, I helped organize a candlelight procession to the Johnson County Courthouse to silently protest the war. Later, some of my friends and neighbors who fought in the war returned home, some damaged, then dishonored for their service. Some never returned. I never changed my view of war, but I certainly changed my view of warriors. I finally understood that we share the sense of duty inspired by John F. Kennedy to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.
My sense of service led me to work in and around the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for approximately two decades, beginning in 1977. This led to me directing Masters of Public Administration programs at the Columbia University since 1985. Theirs led them to risk their lives and limbs in service. to this nation. Their sense of duty and service was deeper and deeper than mine as they were willing to lay down their lives for this country, and I was not. Over time, I came to see and understand this. I was disappointed and discouraged by the way veterans were treated when they came home from the war. Fortunately, over the past few decades most Americans have learned to distinguish warriors from the wars they fought in. We regularly and properly honor veterans for their service. I work at the Ivy League University which has the most enrolled veterans of any Ivy. I enjoyed teaching veterans because they usually have a thirst for knowledge, don’t take education for granted, and bring their life lessons to my public policy and management classes.
As the grandson of Jewish immigrants, I can only love the opportunity and protection America has given my family. I see all the imperfections, including structural racism, extreme income inequality, and recurring anti-Semitism. And yet, on Memorial Day, I stand around the corner near my summer home in Long Beach, New York, applauding first responders, high school bands, and veterans of America’s wars. My feeling of love for this country is deep. I don’t wear it on my sleeve and rarely talk about it, but I remember my grandparents talking about being driven out of Russia and Poland and the horrors they left behind. No one traveled thousands of miles in the early 20th century for sightseeing. It was a perilous journey undertaken because the alternative was far worse. I see the potential for these horrors to emerge in America due to the extreme forces unleashed by Donald Trump, ransacking the Capitol on January 6, 2021. But then I see hundreds of these hooligans prosecuted and their leaders sentenced to years in prison. Maybe Trump or DeSantis will find a way to forgive these people, but hopefully not. Despite the stress our system is under, I remain optimistic that the forces of good and unity in this country are stronger than the forces of hatred and division.
On Memorial Day, we remember those who gave their lives in service to this country. And we honor those who served and risked their lives. We all have different views on America’s wars and what it means to protect this country, but at some point the leaders we’ve elected — despite our flawed system of representation and electoral college — decide we need to beat. And these dedicated people answered that call. This sense of duty and service deserves to be recognized and honored, and that’s why we do it. Today’s veterans do not face the mistrust and abuse that many Vietnam-era veterans faced.
My view is that we must learn from the experience of extreme political polarization and emotion in the Vietnamese era and do today what we learned to do with our veterans. Honor their service, find common cause and shared values. Today, too many people see those with opposing political views as bad and flawed people. This is how Vietnam veterans were made to feel. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. Although I am a political scientist by training, I do not look at the world through the prism of partisan politics. I look at my neighbors in Long Beach and when I compare them to my neighbors in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, I know their political views can be very far apart. But I also know that many of their core values are very similar. They value family, friendship, community, achievement, charity, kindness, self-reliance, and the security of their loved ones. Many are immigrants, children of immigrants or, like me, grandchildren of immigrants. My neighbors in Long Beach show patriotism and hang the American flag in their homes; many of us don’t wear pins, but carry our patriotism in our hearts.
My area of professional expertise is environmental policy and sustainability management. The current US Supreme Court continues to reject EPA rules and narrowly interpret US environmental laws. Their rulings are wrong, but the laws they interpret were designed for a different world. These laws date back nearly half a century and economic and technological development requires that they be updated. Despite the broad consensus behind environmental protection, Washington’s paralysis makes it impossible to update these laws. This makes them vulnerable to narrow and short-sighted interpretation by an ideological Supreme Court. The consensus behind environmental protection makes it equally unlikely that any of these laws will ever be repealed by Congress. We see a similar paralysis in American immigration policy. Most Americans understand the value of immigration, but the current process has created mass pain, injustice and illegality. But just as immigration policy is outdated and flawed, the monetization of disagreements and the pressure behind political polarization make it difficult to build public policy on our shared values. We see it with the debt crisis, but at the end of the day, we also see that when we have our backs against the wall, the forces of consensus somehow manage to overcome the forces of dysfunction. So far, we have managed to avoid the self-destruction caused by our ideological extremes.
Just as we waved our flags this Memorial Day, perhaps we can all spark that sense of patriotism that many of us come to when exposed to so many alternatives to America. We recently saw this with basketball star Brittney Griner standing instead of kneeling for the national anthem. As reported by Jemele Hill In Atlantic:
“Playing in her first real WNBA game in 579 days, Brittney Griner did something Friday night in Los Angeles that national viewers hadn’t seen her do in a long time: center Phoenix Mercury represented the national anthem. She stopped to do so in 2020 but resumed practice after returning from 10 months in prison in Russia.”One thing that is good in this country is our right to protest,” Griner said after the game when I asked about the issue. “You have the right to be able to talk and question and challenge and do all those things. (After) what I went through, it just means a little bit more to me now. I was literally in a cage and I couldn’t stand the way I wanted to…and a whole lot of other situations. Just being able to hear my national anthem, see my flag, I absolutely wanted to get up.
Griner’s act was based on learned experience that thankfully few of us can fully comprehend, but it was easy to understand his desire to defend the flag. The 2024 presidential campaign has begun and is unlikely to be characterized by the search for common ground. The last presidential transition had none of the traditional elements of a peaceful transfer of power. The failed Jan. 6 insurrection was followed by President Trump’s ungraceful and testy departure from the nation’s capital. As we approach the next presidential election, Trump and his supporters are still contesting the last one. Trump is emotionally incapable of accepting defeat – it is both chilling and pathetic to watch him lie about the 2020 election. A quarter of this country supports his attack on our institutions and traditions. But most Americans have had enough, and despite this dysfunction and disharmony, many still seek a sense of unity and leadership that represents our common values and our shared sense of community. I certainly am.