The most interesting thing about Tuesday night’s State of the Union address is how it became a showcase for two attitudes about America – two views of what this country is capable of achieving. One vision is that America is a leader among the family of nations, a shining, can-do example of great and unifying things that can be accomplished: landing on the moon, liberating Europe from Nazi oppression, curing polio – and now committing ourselves to defeating AIDS and cancer.
A competing view is that America is a place that has never come to terms with its past, and which struggles in the present to reconcile diverse and passionately held opinions on an array of hot-button cultural themes. In this America we are gridlocked over civil rights, income disparities, gender inequality, immigration policy, and abortion.
These are differences of opinion over whether America is, or ever has been, “great.” Your primary perspective – whether you take more pride in our national accomplishments or feel aggrieved over its shortcomings — largely defines your present-day political views and feelings about the future. Each side has evidence to support its views, and in Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech, President Trump framed the differences starkly.
In one sense, this seems a matter of temperament more than ideology, and it’s a dichotomy that runs through the course of our history. Neither side is wrong, really. Some define America’s greatness through our commitment to cherishing our founding values and principles. Others define America’s greatness by our persistent struggle and fight for change, to improve upon our founding values and principles and right historic wrongs.
I believe that most Americans – unlike so many of their elected representatives — hold both views simultaneously. I know I do. It is possible to believe that America is great and that the best way to keep it so is by adhering to our time-honored political values and traditions. To believe that too much change, too fast, is perilous and that those pushing for radical change are risking making the country much worse.
Yet, it is also possible to genuinely yearn for understanding, equality and strive to extend civil rights and the fruits of American prosperity to wider groups of people. This is a noble goal and, as the Declaration of Independence articulates when is says that all men are created equal, it is at the heart of the American ideal.
The growing problem is that increasingly, our views and politics are toxically binary – some say America is great or it is flawed, but it can’t be both. We can’t compliment or applaud our opponent, ever. My team is good and the other team is evil. There is no nuance, no compassion, no viable center, no listening.
This was the undercurrent of the last election. With Donald Trump as the incumbent, the same dynamic is already on display as the 2020 election gets going and will only be exacerbated by the nature of Democratic Party’s nominating process, much in the same way Republicans struggled in 2016. It will be fascinating to watch a more intense sequel unfold in 2020, and it will have its moments, as did the State of the Union, in which both sides of the aisle are standing and cheering. Those are the moments that should give us all the most hope.
Bruce Haynes is vice chairman of public affairs for Sard Verbinnen & Co., a global strategic communications consultancy. He shares his views on Twitter at @BruceHaynesDC.