President Joe Biden ‘s campaign “to restore” America’s “soul” with a politics of decency continues apace. But if his starring role as Soul Man is going to heal America, Biden must correct the Democrats ‘ increasingly popular misreading of American history. The 46th commander-in-chief should start by reframing modern America’s core ideological struggle.
Unfortunately, Biden’s Inaugural Address took a wrong historical turn by endorsing progressives’ regressive interpretation of America’s past. “Our history,” he claimed, “has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.”
This stick-figure history minimizes America’s remarkable advances against racism—many of which Democrats should boast about. It hasn’t been perennial trench warfare between competing forces: It’s been a rout, with the forces of liberty and equality occasionally facing racist resistance, which they keep overcoming decisively.
Beyond shortchanging his fellow Americans on the credit most of them deserve, Biden’s demoralizing history is also divisive. It casts his Democratic Party as uniquely noble and egalitarian-minded, thus tarring all Republicans and Trumpists as equality-bashing retrogrades.
Marxists, and most Europeans, view history as a constant struggle, with progress perennially imperiled by oppressors. But Americans usually bank on approaching attainment of that “more perfect union”: resisting complacency and acknowledging challenges, while charting how far we have come.
Amid the progress, certain ideological tensions persist. A more accurate and constructive framing than either mere one-way progress or doom-and-gloom paralysis would be to address America’s “constant struggle” between equality and liberty. Navigating that tension could facilitate national unity because we are all trying to solve that puzzle.
The struggles against slavery—and racism—have not just been crusades for equality, but for liberty. And the secret to American prosperity has not just been “all men are created equal,” but the commitment to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Yet liberty and equality are in constant tension. Today’s push for racial and gender equity often sacrifices liberty to broadly impose equality. Today’s lopsided distribution of wealth resulted from subordinating egalitarian values to the championing of economic libertarianism.
A more optimistic view of American history would invite Americans to learn from one another, seeking common ground, because both major political parties balance impulses of liberty and equality.
Democrats do not just belong to the equality party. Championing individual civil liberties, more open immigration and sexual freedom expresses their love of liberty. Similarly, Republicans are not just the liberty party—their platform encourages “equality for all citizens and access to the American Dream.”
It’s a never-ending American seesaw, requiring judgment calls, juggling and the splitting of differences. That’s the healthiest game in a democracy, and something Senator Biden loved playing. By contrast, today’s “anti-racist” language fuels anger and despair, demonizing the mildest of critics, brooking no compromise.
In short, balancing liberty and equality leads to those delightful, democratizing, humbling punctuation aids called question marks. The “social justice” narrative claiming American politics is all about “anti-racists” fighting for equality helps generate those polarizing, demonizing, often-arrogant punctuation marks called exclamation points.
Modern presidential history is filled with great debates balancing liberty and equality. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society expanded government at the cost of individual liberty, seeking greater egalitarianism. The “Reagan Revolution,” which Ronald Reagan called “The Great Rediscovery,” took steps to preserve some liberties that Big Government threatened.
These plans weren’t formulaic. All unleashed intense debate, both within parties and between parties. But all three visions got Americans thinking and sometimes yelling. The debates’ multi-dimensionality is less conducive to name-calling and finger-pointing, which is inevitable when “anti-racists” call all their rivals “white supremacists.”
Obviously, the Biden administration must relentlessly target genuine white supremacy, nativism and racism. But to cultivate the unity that he knows America needs, President Biden should launch an ideological debate about how to balance our collective desire to live in a just, fair, egalitarian America with our individual need to personally flourish.
Complex conversations, breaking out of the current silos, just might generate a new synthesis addressing a perennial riddle. It could also forge new coalitions and draw new battle lines, strengthening the fight against racism.
Ultimately, the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement proved that racism, anti-Semitism and nativism—all prejudices—are the enemies of those who seek equality, those who fight for freedom, those who emphasize individual quality of life and those who cultivate the nation’s soul. Most Americans want all those things, just with slightly different emphases. President Biden’s mission should be to unite us in common cause through creative juggling and the hope that yesterday’s successes will illuminate a “more perfect union” tomorrow.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.
Copyright © 2021 Prof Gil Troy, All rights reserved.
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