My dad used to tell me that God helps those who help themselves. Accordingly, and contrary to the beliefs of some, America’s exceptional place in the world is not a birthright. Has God blessed us? Yes. But did he give us a perpetual grant of good standing? No. It’s for this reason that Benjamin Franklin observed in leaving the Constitutional Convention that we had been granted a republic “if you can keep it.”
And here I am worried.
Each day we seem to tear at the very building blocks our Founding Fathers put into place that sustained and nourished our republic for over 200 years. What we got right in the past, we are getting wrong in the present, and if you pull at the foundation of anything long enough, it tilts, falls, or crumbles.
Let’s look at what’s taking place here.
While financial prudence marked our country’s history, we have now lost our minds. Simple math dictates that there will be consequences. As Republicans looked the other way on debt and spending under former President Donald Trump, license was given to yet more spending under Democrats today. Seemingly, no one is watching our nation’s finances in Washington, and yet sustainable spending has always been foundational in supporting open political systems. After all, it was former President Thomas Jefferson who saw public debt as the greatest danger and noted, “To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us up with perpetual debt. We must make our choice between economy and liberty or profusion and servitude.”
Similarly, our country’s exceptionalism came as a result of exceptional choices on the very things that drive an economy. Things such as the rule of law, private property rights, competition, work ethic, and even science have been defined by the British historian Niall Ferguson as “killer apps” that distinguished the American way from so many of our competitors around the world. Yet today, these things are under assault as never before. COVID-19 has invited a new federal experiment in paying people not to work. A national eviction moratorium holding, even as our economy rebounds, hardly bodes well for the notion of private property rights. And as a nation with COVID’s delta variant soaring, we are seeing the logical ends to an embrace of “fake news” and a repulsion of basic science. Democrats love science but seem less passionate about math, which is hardly a way forward.
While we were designed as a nation of laws and not men, it has been our embrace of traditions, political norms, and institutions that represented the glue that held the workings of our politics together. But when the media can be labeled by a sitting president as an enemy of the people, or when our tradition in the peaceful transfer of power is interrupted as it was in our last election, hang on to your hat. Traditions and institutions restrain political action in some ways more than the rule of law. It’s not a law that presidential nominees, and in turn gubernatorial nominees across the country, release their tax returns — but it was a 50-year tradition that, like many things of late in Washington political circles, has been challenged or discarded.
Even the idea of being “in the boat” together as Americans is under assault as never before. To be Japanese is to be Japanese, and unlike many places around the world where ethnicity is definitional in citizenship, this has never been the American way. It was a belief that defined one as an American, and as a consequence, we have always managed to iron out our differences and join as Americans in tackling whatever came our way. Today’s political tribalism hardly fits this formula.
Though political leaders have always shaded arguments in their direction, lately, we have seen a wholesale attack on the merits of truth. The ideas that fit a diverse population of 330 million cannot be digested, let alone debated, without some acknowledgment of the validity of the ideas being contested — just as they can never be accepted by differing perspectives if forced with a strident tone.
Finally, one of our greatest strengths has been an outward focus, and we profited mightily from a trading system we helped construct after the wreckage of World War II. There will always be job dislocation with free trade, and I saw it firsthand as governor. Textile jobs were lost, but they were ultimately replaced with jobs in advanced manufacturing that paid more. It would be a mistake to turn inward as so many in politics would lead us to do these days.
In short, our civilization faces two paths forward, and which path we take will be determined by you and me. As Robert Frost noted many years ago, which path we choose will make all the difference.
Mark Sanford is a former governor of South Carolina, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and author of Two Roads Diverged: A Second Chance for the Republican Party, the Conservative Movement, the Nation― and Ourselves (Vertel Publishing).