Hindsight in 2020, but What Now?

Jesse​ had to talk me down last night from a full panic about the presidential race. My disturbed-horror-face wrinkles are becoming as entrenched as the polemic views in the two-party system...HIYO!

I had up until now convinced myself that, yes, we Americans are reality TV-loving dumb-dings on a superficial level (I'm looking at you, me), but that deep down and collectively we have sense and virtue too. 

I am now beginning to doubt this. 

The best Jesse could do for me was to say that he thinks we'll have to just grin and bear it for the next four years and hope it's a wake-up call. (The upside: seeing which candidate will be the first to use the "Hindsight in 2020" campaign slogan. It's so good, right? I thought of this on my own, but someone else already made a bumper sticker for it too!).

But as a passionate reader and admirer of American history (I cry like a big dumb nerd every time one of my Presidential biographies ends with the guy dying...spoiler alert: most do), it's not that easy to just write off this lunacy and resign myself to 4 embarrassing (if not dangerous) years. I am literally brought to bitter tantrum tears when I think about some of today's candidates possibly holding the same office as Washington/Adams/Lincoln/Roosevelt. I am ashamed when I read what the founders entrusted to us and how disappointed they would be about what we've done with it.

Many countries attempted to carve out republics before the U.S. did. There are lots of theories as to why our Great Experiment has worked for so long while others didn't. But one thing that the men who gave their lives to seeing that it would succeed seem to return to is the idea of liberty thriving as a result of a nation that esteems virtue above all, and not the idea that liberty itself could create or even was necessarily a virtue in itself. 

"We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net."-John Adams

"To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea."
-James Madison

"It is in the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. . .  degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats into the heart of its laws and constitution."
-Thomas Jefferson

"Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."-Benjamin Franklin

"Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?"
-George Washington

"Whenever we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary."
-Thomas Paine

They aren't saying, "you need to pick one perfectly virtuous person, and as long as you do that, you'll be okay." Obviously that person doesn't exist. Every president we've had, from the most epic (Washington truly was a mythic leader, but still a slaveowner) to the most jerk/idiot/criminal/nympho (Nixon did good things in China between crimes and Clinton did lots for worldwide peace, the economy and promoted women's rights, between doing other things with lots of women), has had glaring gaps in their own character and would probably admit it. This was never supposed to be a top-down system where we emulate government. The leaders and laws are a product of us, not the other way around.

And it makes sense. We have an entrenched bureaucracy. I have always laughed it off when people say "this is how Hitler got his start" about an American politician because by design, it's very hard for one person to make rapid, sweeping changes in American government. Sure, the gridlock is infuriating a lot of the time, but it's there as a check against the kind of despotism and ass-hattery that would ignore the voice of the majority and lead us quickly into trouble.  

No, these guys who literally wrote the book on what America should/could/would be seem to be saying that we the--"We The People"-- are the engine and we make our own destiny, and that it's on us to make sure it all works by prioritizing the right things. 

This idea had been bastardized by many talking heads and stump speeches and sermons, and it's NOT what these giants of history (nor Jesus) are referring to when they talk about virtue. The idea of America "turning back to the Lord!" to be "great again" is cheap and easy and it's bad politics and theology in my opinion (aka Jesus Lite). Because neither is ever that formulaic.  Neither the constitution nor the bible says, "if you stop doing X, everything will mostly go well for you." And also America simply isn't a Christian nation, by definition nor by practice or composition.

As easy as it is right now to point at a few (or more likely one particularly glaring, orange) examples of leaders without virtue, the true blame...or at least explanation, lies with us. The political party leaders and strategists aren't morons, and they aren't backroom conspirators trying to saddle us with a candidate that more than 50% of us would never, ever vote for. If politicians are the product, we are the market, and the political parties are there to supply that which we demand.

These are our monsters.

So what does a nation that values virtue look like and why do we seem to have strayed from this? 

I don't know. Crap, that was anti-climactic.

I don't even have a well thought out idea. My best theory is kind of morbid and it's that we haven't had a major, nation-consuming war in too long. The people of the Revolutionary, Civil and World wars weren't inherently better than us, yet they are pretty universally revered, admired and called "the greatest generation." What they did all do though is rise to the occasion of drastic circumstances. Human nature is crazy resilient and adaptive, and immense hardship can bring out incredible character (that's historical AND biblical). 

These major wars were big enough to require the efforts and courage and sacrifice of the entire nation to survive, and I think that as a result they were transformative to our large-scale national character and values. So a country that has been sitting on peace (on a macro level, I know many heroic men and women have died in service to our country in wars and conflicts that may be regional or less than nation-consuming), and prosperity for 70 years could very understandably have taken on the character of a spoiled and pampered child. 

I really hope I am wrong. But I get nervous because it feels like we may be close to electing someone as the face and voice of our nation who is extremely contentious, bombastic, arrogant, and conflict-happy. My nightmare is that well-armed, reactionary, antagonistic countries who may be looking for a reason to cripple us would see Presidential vitriol and political/diplomatic incorrectness as reason enough to begin or draw us into a conflict that would cost blood on a large scale.

But again, that is all so very macro: "Our nation needs to esteem virtue more." Ummmmm, okay, George Washington/Keight Dukes...what do you want me to do about it? Yeah for real.  What do I--one chick with one vote in a hidebound conservative state that will undoubtedly vote Republican no matter what--do to count it as "doing my part." Even aside from voting or campaigning or this one election, how do I change anything about our nation's virtue? How do we? Because I really don't want the answer to ever be that I have to send my son to war, ration butter and go to work in a tank factory.

This is really, really hard stuff. It's reductive to just blame Donald or Hillary or Obama or W. and complain, so what else can we do? It's infuriating because it feels like at the highest level things are spiraling and changing rapidly, but at my level, I'm just a flea trying to reroute the Titanic. Everything feels upside down. The few should feel as constrained in their power as the many feel in our freedom. Problems happen when it gets flip-flopped and change can only happen in a few hands, but the masses can't seem to do anything--and it feels like that's where we are.

I am kind of just ready to see this period of America as history, but I don't want to be one who commits evil or let's it happen because I did nothing.

P.S. Full disclosure, if I had my way from here I think I'd like to see Rubio vs. Sanders, and I am not sure who I would then vote for.