The 240th anniversary of the writing of the Declaration of Independence is particularly significant in this most bizarre of election years. Even in those times when the imperfections of our political system seem most glaring, we have always comforted ourselves with two reminders. First, as Winston Churchill once observed, democracy is the worst system of government except for all the rest. Additionally, we tend to take solace in the assertion that things have always eventually worked out in the past.
Sometimes the working out has taken a very long time, as with ending slavery and its successor, the Jim Crow era. Voting and civil rights did not come quickly or easily to African-Americans, women, or the LGBT community. The Supreme Court’s nullification of the 1965 Voting Rights Act reminds us that it’s possible to move backward as well as forward. We still have a long way to go.
Similarly, the perception of foreign threats has not brought out the best in us. Think of the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus under our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, the Sedition Act of 1918 and the Palmer raids, and the McCarthy era in the 1950s. In the aftermath of 9/11 and now of terror attacks by ISIS, the debate about the correct balance between security and liberty is in full force
From the vantage point of 2016, we can see real progress in many areas even as the rise of Donald Trump should remind us that we can’t take any of our freedoms for granted. The “it’s always worked out before” mentality is an invitation to complacency with real, not imaginary, harms that could result.
If you doubt that, think of the predictions about the impact on the British economy that were widely ignored before the Brexit vote. Think of the young Brits, who will be most impacted by the split from Europe, many of whom didn’t bother to vote. Think of all those people who searched on Google after the vote to find out what their vote meant. Think, finally, of the increase in racial incidents in Britain apparently by people feeling empowered by the virulent anti-immigrant message that was a centerpiece of the Brexit campaign.
It’s easy to find parallels for every one of those developments in Britain in the political atmosphere of this year’s election. Donald Trump’s simplistic pronouncements about renegotiating all of the current trade agreements would cause chaos in the international economic system. Focusing on NAFTA and TPP ignores the fact that international trade is governed by a much larger complex of agreements. The impulse to protectionism implied in his rants has always led to turmoil in the past.
Moreover, his “tax plan” would, in the opinion of any economist who has taken a close look at it, dramatically increase the national debt and bring no discernible benefits other than reducing the taxes of the very wealthy. Actually, Trump has shown so little awareness of how the economy works that the greatest danger is his ignorance and naiveté.
We are told that the “have-nots” voted for Brexit to punish the elites. We are also told that anger over the struggling economy convinced people to vote for a change without necessarily understanding what that change would be or how it might make things better.
You can definitely see that same dynamic among Trump supporters. Given that most of those individuals are highly unlikely to switch their position, ensuring that he is not elected president in November needs to focus on getting Democrats to vote and on undecided voters.
Much of the commentary on the Democratic race since Hillary Clinton wrapped up the nomination has focused on whether Bernie Sanders fans will end up supporting her. The more significant question is whether they will vote at all. Young voters, the core of his support, have historically turned out in the lowest proportion of all age groups. That it happened that way in Britain should be no surprise.
Any of those young voters who assert that there is no real difference between Clinton and Trump; or who decide that if Bernie can’t be president they will stay home on Election Day; or who are just too busy to go to the polls; will be making a direct contribution to the election of Donald Trump and to all that will follow. After the election is no time to have voters remorse or to “wish” that you had done the right thing.
Trump’s campaign has been filled with lies, misrepresentations and distortions. If you’re one of those people who says that “all of them do it”, you just haven’t been paying attention. Accepting false equivalency is the lazy way of evaluating political candidates.
Every fact checking organization has concluded that fully three-quarters of Donald Trump’s assertions are largely or totally false. He has an insurmountable lead in the “pants on fire” and “four Pinocchio’s” ratings.
Don’t wait until after the election to google his comments. You have no excuse for discovering after the fact that he has been lying to you for months. If you choose to believe his lies, that’s on you.
And, as in Britain, the ginned-up fear about immigrants is driving a significant part of Trump’s appeal. We’re already seeing more overt signs of racial and immigrant bias. If Trump wins, you can count on those same people feeling that they have license to express their darkest and ugliest prejudices. Not letting him become president is the most effective way to put them back in their boxes since it’s unlikely their minds will ever be changed.
I can think of no more inappropriate way to celebrate this nation’s history and heritage than to “build a wall.” It’s ironic that Tea Party activists, Know-nothing nativists, and Trump advocates all assert a fealty to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Their values couldn’t be more at odds with either of those documents. In wanting to build walls, use religious and ethnic tests to determine who gets to be an American, and trying, however futilely, to cut this nation off from the rest of the world, they demonstrate how disconnected they really are from what is exceptional about the United States.
That Democrats will be holding their Convention in Philadelphia, 240 years after the Declaration of Independence was written in that City, provides an almost perfect counter-image to Donald Trump. The key to Hillary Clinton’s ability to prevail in November is for her campaign to come out of the Convention with the same urgency and commitment that inspired the authors of the Declaration of Independence.