During the presidential campaign, Americans have wondered how anyone in good conscience could vote for the other candidate. Many have wondered also how we can’t do any better than Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton. That much unites us.
This negative unity points to a still darker unity. We share a national culture increasingly shaped by entertainment, decadence, racism, victimhood, and juvenile conduct. We may share in it differently and many indeed participate in brighter elements of our community. But we are all a party to these disturbing trends. We want stimulus in every corner of our lives and in every corner of our devices. We indulge in the riches of this country—the top 20 percent of us extravagantly—without scruple. We rarely mix racially, and we grossly underestimate why that is. We cry foul at the slightest challenge to our way of thinking and doing. We accept and often celebrate a sexed-up, vulgar immaturity in our public spaces, colleges, workplace, and politics.
The presidential election showed us this crude culture like never before. Trump’s victory has normalized these American mores as criteria for our highest office. True, many wanted change. Yes, Washington DC is broken. Of course, Hillary was not innocent of these cultural traits, and the legacy of Bill’s monumentally poor judgment weighed her down. But Trump epitomizes these currents of American life.
This is an American character gut check. We know it is hollow to be entertained all the time, to conspicuously consume, to devalue human beings on the basis of origin, to howl when absolutist views are not accepted absolutely, to value women for their bodies alone.
We know these things, but we lie to ourselves about our individual and collective complicity in them. We bury these tendencies through euphemism and compartmentalization. On any one of these issues or all of them, we each have our “locker room talk” moments. We mask profound wrongdoing in these areas by excusing it as one-time misbehavior, not core transgression. We admit mistakes but not our fundamental mistakenness.
James Madison named these human passions and deceptions in Federalist 10. He writes, “A zeal for different opinions…divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.” Madison offered small “r” republican government as the sentry against the universal human tendency “to go low” and enshrine it politically. He thought large republics avoided tyrannies of majority or minority by jamming the political works with significant numbers of elected officials who disagree—since, as Madison notes, “Enlightened statesman will not always be at the helm.”
Our republic has been a proven if not perfect defense against the unreasonable passions and interests of Americans and politicians. The wisdom of constitutional republicanism should hold, but let us strengthen it with Madisonian recognition of individual and collective fallibility. Let us also strengthen it by our historic aspiration for a more perfect union built upon our founders’ call for justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, and the general welfare. This aspiration combined with an awareness of the beam in our own eye may provide the resources for more honorable public life and leadership. We better hope that much unites us.
Andrew Finstuen is dean of the Honors College at Boise State University.