What Is Happening in America?

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The 1960s were a tumultuous political time with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. On the day Bobby Kennedy was killed in 1968, I heard my father exclaim, “What is happening in America?” and I felt for the first time his anxiety about America. I was 19, disagreed with my father about almost everything, but that question must have been lurking just beneath the surface because when he said those words he gave me permission to think deeply about what was going on in our country.

My father did not vote for John Kennedy and would not have voted for Bobby Kennedy if he had become the nominee of the Democratic Party. He supported Civil Rights for blacks but he thought MLK jr. a rabble rouser, a common feeling among whites in the 1960s. But he considered each of those assassinations attacks on America democracy and not just the killings of public figures.

The Assault on American Democracy

The January 6, 2021 mob attack against America’s Congress and its Constitutional duty to certify the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States of America was an attempted assault on American democracy. Three pillars hold democracy in place: competitive parties offering citizens a choice, free and fair elections, and a peaceful transition of power.

Democrat Biden and Republican Trump offered the record 158 million voters a clear choice. By America’s long standing election rules, Joe Biden won the popular vote by 7 million ballots and the decisive Electoral College tally 306 to 232. President Trump’s legal team challenged the vote totals in many states, with no success. Election officials in each state and the District of Columbia certified their states. On January 6, Congress was meeting to vote on those certifications. That’s when the mob tried to kill American democracy.

What Else Happened in America on January 6?

But that is not the only thing that happened on January 6. Two men, one African-American and one Jewish, won Senate seats in Georgia, a former Confederate State with a long history of racism and anti-semitism.

Two images of America: a mob laden with racist and antisemitic symbols attacking the American Capitol Building, and the two Georgia senate winners, each part of a group once marginalized. Both images are partial answers to my father’s question still relevant today: “what is happening in America?”

The realities behind each image have always been part of the American story. Many of the men who wrote the Constitution owned slaves. And they placed within that document a provision protecting the importing of slaves until 1808.

But America’s Constitution, ratified in 1789, also includes the great aspirational Preamble., with the words “more perfect union” and “establish justice” suggesting “we the people” still had work to do. The United States was still not a perfect union.

One horrible but necessary task toward perfection would be the destruction of America’s system of slavery. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln used the backdrop of Gettysburg to make clear to Americans that America was a “new nation brought forth” not by the Constitution, with its slavery-heavy-weight, but by the Declaration of Independence, with its great aspirational declaration about the equality of all.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Last spring I was in Romania teaching two classes on American politics to Romanian students (and one student from Slovakia) in an American Studies graduate program at the University of West in Timisoara. During the first class period, I asked the students, “when did America become a democracy?” “1965” answered one student and anticipating my follow-up question said “that’s when African-Americans in America’s south got the right to vote.”

The story of America is a story of competing visions of what America should be. One vision is the age-old dream of dominance and exclusion by one ethnic or racial or religious or gender group. On January 6, on the sacred floor of the American Capital, the man carrying the Confederate Flag and the man with the Auschwitz shirt represented this vision.

A competing dream–built upon the equality clause of The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’s Preamble–calls for a more perfect and just union that extends liberty to all Americans, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.

On January 6, 2021, there were two competing visions of America for all to see.

What is happening in America today? Something that is always present–the continual struggle between exclusion and inclusion. I don’t know what side will win but I do know what side I am on.

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