The Better Angels of our Nature

NOTE: I wrote the following back in November, soon after the 2016 election, and decided not to post it because it seemed too angry. But since then, I have been unable to write anything more than emails. Sometimes that’s even been a chore. I still agree with what I wrote and I think events since the election have only confirmed my darkest fears. I now believe I just need to get this out of my system, so I can go on to write something more constructive.

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My colleague, David Scott, and I were driving through the tropical rainforest of Maui on the famous road to Hana most of the day on Election Day. (Academic conferences sometimes have a plus side!) It’s a winding road of over 600 switchbacks and almost 60 single-lane bridges that runs along the coastline and through an amazingly beautiful and lush jungle of koa trees, eucalyptus, and bamboo. And there’s absolutely no cell phone coverage or internet access.

We began the return trip around four in the afternoon (10 p.m. on the east coast of the U.S.) and by about five I got my first text message of the day: a gif that looked like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” from one of my Hillary-supporting friends. Then nothing. We had no more reception for the next hour. It was agonizing waiting to find out what was happening as election results were coming in across the country. But when I found out how one state after another was swinging to Trump, I couldn’t believe it. All the polls suggested that Hillary Clinton would win. She had swept the debates. She had great ads. She was the most qualified candidate. And while her email problems had clouded the last days of the campaign, she certainly had a better ethical record than her opponent. What happened to American voters?

Of course, I’m not happy that my party lost. I am concerned that policies I believe are important will not be implemented and that ones that I believe are dangerous may be put in place. Among those I see being ignored is the Paris Agreement and efforts to combat what I believe is the biggest threat to our world: climate change.

I am concerned that instead of fixing the Affordable Care Act, Republicans will simply kill it, and we’ll be back to the days when fewer people had insurance, insurance companies could deny coverage to people with “preexisting conditions,” and young people were cut from their parents’ insurance at 18. I’m concerned that the Supreme Court may be packed with justices who support problematic decisions like Citizen’s United.

I worry about the policies Trump will put in place that will alienate our allies and close us off from the rest of the world.

I worry about harsh immigration laws that will divide families.

I worry about our not accepting immigrants who need our help.

I’m especially sad that the most qualified person lost and the least qualified person ever (at least in my lifetime) won. But I can accept these facts as the cost of democracy—the tides of politics ebb and flow over time.

But there’s something different about this election. What I feel right now is not coming from the fact that Republicans won and my party lost. That’s happened before, and my family can testify that I get over elections quickly. I worked for almost a decade as non-designated staff on Capitol Hill, and I live in Utah County, so I have come to respect and admire people from both parties. Honestly, I appreciate hearing differing views. And I think ideas get better when they are challenged and debated.

What makes me incredibly sad and angry and ashamed for my country is who we elected this time. There’s symbolic status in the office of president, and we just gave this status to a man who is immensely un-presidential.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, he received less than forty percent of the vote. Seven Southern states had already succeeded from the union. Yet Lincoln’s first inaugural address has become part of American scripture. “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land,” Lincoln intoned, “will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Great leaders, I believe, can bring out the better angels of our nature. Good presidents of all political parties have brought out the best in us as a nation. We’ve been given vision from FDR’s “New Deal,” LBJ’s “Great Society,” Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again,” George H.W. Bush’s “Kinder, Gentler Nation,” Bill Clinton’s “Bridge to the 21st Century,” George W. Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism,” and Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can.”

But I see Trump bringing out our worst angels. He is a bully, misogynist, racist, nationalist. And he empowers the darkest sides of our national soul. He has empowered our collective shadow.

I am depressed and angry and exhausted.

How can we fight this? I believe we must fight with “the better angels of our nature”—with love, compassion, and goodwill for all—until the “mystic chords of memory” return us to our collective senses. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

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