SUNNY SIDE UP.
Tocqueville said of Americans that we “consider society as a body in a state of improvement”. He authored that observation based on travels nearly two centuries ago. So, it is an open question as to whether he would recognize the same optimistic spirit in us today. On the surface, it seems unlikely. A pandemic and insane political bitterness makes us wonder: is it still Morning in America? Will it ever be again?
The phrase “Morning in America” brings the warm fuzzies to most Empty Nesters. Reagan used the line as the centerpiece of his 1984 re-election campaign, to great effect. There was no election doubt that year, as the Gipper carried 49 states and approached 60% of the popular vote. The advertisement that introduced the line focused on the improving American economy, which of course had much to do with the result.
But let me ask you what you remember about Ronald Reagan. Was it his deep understanding of complex economic principles? Maybe his diplomatic skills jump to mind? Actually, I doubt it. Close your eyes and think of Ronald Reagan; chances are you see a man with a smile on his face. Whatever you think of Reagan’s policies, the man believed America was still in charge of its own destiny. More importantly, Reagan exuded confidence that America was up to the task.
Morning in America appeared right when we needed it. The economy ground to a halt and we seemed resource starved. The Iranians revealed an odd and unexpected military impotence. The Russians menaced us across the globe. There was as much doubt about the American experiment as there is today. In four short years that all changed; we had our mojo back.
NOT THE FIRST TIME.
We might all sleep better at night if we demonstrated a little more muscle memory on the history front. Reagan was not the first president to right our ship by calling on the force of will that Tocqueville observed. Before we experienced Morning in America, Kennedy asked us what we could for our country; FDR told us the only thing to fear was fear itself; and Lincoln called to the better angels of our nature.
In my own life, I was scared on 9/11. I am sure my parents were terrified during the Cuban Missile Crisis, particularly so as Dad was in the Air Force stationed in Florida. My father-in-law likely took a deep breath every time his Naval orders came through during World War II. My grandparents saw both World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts and an economic collapse that lasted the better part of a decade. Yet through all of that my family, and many like mine, have flourished
With less luck, I could be a hyphenated American, part of the long line of people who must fight harder to get a smaller share of the American dream. Even so, I would have had grandparents who knew firehoses, poll taxes and attack dogs, while I worried whether Voter ID was suppressive.
The point is that over the last century, just like out first century, we progressed. The arc of history not only bends towards justice; it also points to prosperity. Reagan’s Morning in America was a needed reminder rather than a new concept.
THE RIVER RUNS WIDE.
I know my history and I know my geopolitical and economic realities. If your existential soul was given the choice of one country and one era to place itself, it would pick the United States of America right now. Yes, we have uncertainty over the pandemic, angst over racism, fear of an expanding government, and befuddlement over climate change.
Those problems do not diminish the fact that we are at peace. We led the effort to create a vaccine that will end the pandemic, the scientific equivalent of landing a man on the moon in less than a year. Our financial system was robust enough to easily survive a severe and unexpected shock. It may come in fits and starts, but each year our minorities experience more freedom and less discrimination. Put another way, if 2020 cannot knock us out, nothing else can.
There is one other small problem I did not mention. We hate each other. With a vengeance normally reserved to combatants vying for the eighth grade cheerleading squad. Sadly, the maturation of social media has revealed us to hold about the same level of emotional maturity as those eighth graders.
The same leader who called us to our better angels also warned of the dangers of a house divided. Lincoln was right about that, progress is too difficult when the fight rages as fiercely behind you as it does in front of you. For it to really be Morning in America again, we need some hint of common ground. My social media feeds, the yelling heads (they passed talking head status a long time ago) and just life in general suggest that common ground no longer exists.
AGAIN, NOT THE FIRST TIME.
The Way Back Machine.
An instant gratification culture with limited memory capacity has its drawbacks. As overheated as everything seems today, we have overwhelming historical evidence that our temperature will recede.
Let’s start with that Morning in America advertisement. Reagan ran that ad four short years after assuming office in what many thought to be a crumbling empire. And that is just one example among many of how quickly our politics can change.
On September 12, 2001, we were one people with no daylight between us, a scant nine months after an actual contested election decided by 537 Florida voters or 5 Supreme Court Justices, take your pick. Sixty years ago people urged Nixon to fight the voter fraud that had cost him the White House; his decision not to do that probably made his path in 1968 possible.
The Way, Way Back Machine.
I have not researched it definitively, but I would lay a hefty wager that the yelling heads of 1824 or 1876 offered premature eulogies for American democracy when John Quincy Adams somehow ascended to the Presidency with less electoral and popular votes than Andrew Jackson (1824) or we needed a blue ribbon commission to broker a backroom deal making Rutherford B. Hayes President instead of Samuel Tilden in exchange for ending reconstruction (1876).
The Adams family (no pun intended for fans of the 1960’s TV show) was no stranger to contested Presidential elections, Adams Senior have succeeded Washington by a razor thin margin over Thomas Jefferson in 1796 to have Thomas serve as his vice-president. Can you imagine a Biden-Trump administration? We then fixed that problem with the 12th Amendment only to create a deadlock that took the House of Representatives 35 ballots to resolve to select Jefferson as President over Burr as Vice-President, when it was clear that was how America voted.
Alexander Hamilton brokered the deal that put Jefferson in the White House despite despising Jefferson’s politics. Burr of course repaid the favor by shooting Hamilton in an early morning duel while Burr still served as vice-president (do not give Mike Pence any ideas). Morning in America, indeed. When you think about it, this has all the elements of a great drama, perhaps a movie or something for Broadway. Anyway, the real end to that story was that Adams and Jefferson eventually reconciled after defining the political fight that exists 224 years later: how powerful should the federal government be?
Finally, Lincoln’s election was controversial enough that states started leaving before Abe even got to the White House. That result was a bit more serious than a Texas State Representative trying to fund raise off the idea. Yet somehow, through it all, from Adams/Jefferson to Bush/Gore we have found common ground. Often hidden and never permanent, but it is always there.
AND THE POINT IS…
I am so tired of hearing it. I am tired of hearing that Donald Trump is going to end American democracy and I am tired of hearing that Joe Biden has stolen American democracy. The point is that if American democracy was bigger than John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, it is a damn sure bet that it is bigger than Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
I am so thankful I live in country where we can be passionate about our politics. Thankful enough that I am willing to exercise restraint in the expression of that passion. Today is the start of resolution week; we think of the things that will make our live better if we only have the willpower to do them.
So my resolution Number 1 is to bring back Morning in America. As of today (I am not even waiting for the official New Year) I am fully optimistic about the state of our union. Not because of our President, our Governor or our dog catcher. Instead I have faith in our system of governance and ultimately, I have faith that our people will again find elusive common ground. I urge you to join me in the resolution; if it does not work for you, you can go back to talk radio the same day you resume your morning doughnut buys.