Citizens, Not Spectators

The American story has been the “story of flawed and fallible people united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals,” said President George W. Bush in his inaugural address of Jan. 20, 2001. The theme of a united people also ran through the keynote speech of Illinois senatorial candidate Barack Obama at this summer’s Democratic National Convention. Both speeches won bipartisan praise, because Americans know the importance of national unity.

But today the nation is deeply divided on many questions that have a profound moral dimension: abortion, stem cell research, same-sex marriage, the Iraq nightmare, the uncertain economy, the failures of public education and the strategies to be adopted to shield children from Internet pornography. Because these questions are not only divisive but also complicated, they are unlikely to be intelligently debated in the current presidential campaign. In fact, the campaign will probably exacerbate divisions.


Two topics, the economy and Iraq, seem to be uppermost in the minds of the voters. Data released by the Internal Revenue Service in July show that the gross income of all Americans declined by 5.1 percent in the period 2000-2, the most recent years for which figures are available. The last time this total income fell was in 1953, and that was for one year only. People with incomes above $200,000 experienced the sharpest downturn in income, because they are the ones who had invested most heavily in the stock market. But all Americans feel squeezed. The country is deeply divided on how to deal with poverty, unemployment, government regulation of business and huge budget and trade deficits.

As for Iraq, the war has turned into a disaster with no resolution in sight. This so-called pre-emptive war was unjust from the beginning. In 2003 Iraq did not pose a clear and immediate threat to the United States. And although Saddam Hussein committed atrocities against his own people, genocide is currently occurring in Sudan, and the U.S. response so far has been negligible. Although those responsible for this failed policy should be held responsible, the burning question is, “What do we do now in Iraq?” The country is becoming as divided over the answer as it was over Vietnam, but both candidates respond with little more than sound bites.

Even apart from these intractable issues, unity is difficult in a nation of nearly 300 million people of diverse classes, religions and ethnic origins pursuing their own interests. To nourish community on this expansive continent, Americans have historically formed smaller societies. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835, we have employed free associations more constantly and more adroitly than any other nation. Hundreds of thousands of them—religious, political, educational, business, convivial and athletic—have helped create unity amid the diversity that characterizes our country.

Along with their quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Americans share a faith in a few practical principles that preserve national unity and serve as guides in times of crisis. First among these is acceptance of the rule of law, which makes it possible to settle disputes without recourse to violence, the preferred tool of terrorists. The Civil War showed that this rule does not always work. Still, there have been notable successes. In the presidential election of 1876, Samuel J. Tilden received a popular majority, as did Al Gore in 2000. But neither man had the necessary majority of electoral votes, and the office went eventually to their opponents. Despite intense bitterness, the results were accepted without riots in the streets. These elections show the importance of every citizen’s vote.

Our nation has also been united in the belief that education and hard work will be rewarded. While most still believe this, many in the ghettos of our inner cities feel they have no opportunity for a real education or for a job with a living wage. Those laid off by their companies feel the same way. Hope must be nourished with effective programs not only because of the demands of justice but also for the sake of national unity.

Finally, our country has been united in the belief that making sacrifices for a good cause, whether in war or at home, is a sign of patriotism and good citizenship. But cynicism from both right and left toward government officials and institutions makes people question whether any cause is worth their sacrifices in taxes and lives. Negative campaign ads, lies by government officials and failed programs and policies undermine this necessary source of unity.

Restoration of the trust necessary for unity must begin with each citizen doing his or her civic duty by voting. As President Bush said in that inaugural address, all Americans should be citizens, not spectators.

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