American ideal: What we were told, what we learned, why we vote

Maryland holds its first day of early voting for the midterms.

As Election Day 2018 approaches, I speak for my generation, the baby boomers, the 70 million or so Americans who were born between 1946 and 1964. Until the millennials catch us some time next year, we still constitute the largest generation in the U.S. electorate.

While it’s critical that millennials vote and start taking positions of power, it’s just as important that baby boomers pass on what we learned — fundamental and even noble beliefs that form the American ideal.


I don’t assume this was done in every household or history class. So, just in case no one from my generation ever stated what this all means — what our shared values are, and what we should vote for — I will do it here. Election Day is the right time for this reflection, especially this year, when there’s a lot of confusion and conflict about what Americans supposedly want from the people they elect to office.

In which our columnist suggests 10 ways good citizens can become great ones.

And I hope this serves as a reminder to my fellow boomers: There is an American ideal. We once knew it well. We grew up with it. We should keep it in mind as we head to the polls.

  • The U.S. is the greatest country in the world because it saved the world from tyranny and further holocaust by getting into World War II. Aside from George Washington never telling a lie, this is the first thing baby boomers learned about their country. Americans sacrificed their lives to liberate countries in distant parts of the globe.
  • Victories in Europe and the Pacific affirmed not only our military-industrial might but our generosity. We helped nations rebuild. We formed alliances to keep the peace and bring prosperity to western democracies like ours. We considered those alliances sacred, and presidents honored them through the Cold War and beyond.
  • The U.S. is a great melting pot, a nation of immigrants and their descendants, and this is something to be celebrated, not feared. Aside from the native Americans, everyone started elsewhere. We were taught that diversity enriched our society and that the U.S. was stronger because of the hard work and yearning of the poor who came here to pursue better lives.
  • We learned that the U.S. was not perfect, its colonial history particularly brutal. From its birth, it allowed people to be enslaved; it went to war over abolition.
  • We were taught that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president because he had freed the slaves, preserved the union and hoped to heal a bitterly divided nation. Lincoln affirmed the ideals of America — freedom, justice, equality for all — and the personal ideals of honesty, integrity, command of facts, common sense and service to a greater good. When we vote for any candidate today, we should keep Lincoln in mind.
  • The Civil War did not “bind up the nation’s wounds,” as Lincoln had hoped. A century later, the country still suffered from the bigotry and racial hatred that doomed Reconstruction and brought on Jim Crow. Baby boomers were told that the old ways had to go, that segregation and discrimination based on race, gender, religion or ethnicity was wrong. “All men are created equal,” it says in the Declaration of Independence, and we should never tolerate — certainly never vote for — the man or woman who foments bigotry or stokes fears. That’s not political correctness. That’s basic humanity.
  • We lived through the Vietnam War and Watergate. Many Americans became disillusioned with politicians and government. It’s possible we’ve never fully recovered. The distrust and cynicism that developed back then lingered. Some people reached elected office by exploiting a jaundiced view of government when what we needed was a restoration of trust that it could serve us efficiently and honestly, free from special interests. We should still pursue that ideal.
  • We learned that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of our greatest presidents because he steered the nation through the Great Depression and created a system for taking care of our elderly and our poor, affirming a rich nation’s conscience, its generosity and its belief in the common good. Roosevelt challenged the corporate elites and believed our wealth should be measured by how many of us share in the nation’s prosperity. He warned against fearing fear and described a conservative as “a man with two perfectly good legs who never learned how to walk forward.” Today that would be read as political ridicule, when what FDR wanted was a nation that, even in dark times, could keep its eye on the American ideal.
  • We should reject politicians, even the ones we like, if they lie or suggest regressive policies. We should vote for bright, educated, truth-seeking, high-minded candidates. We should always give idealism a chance.
  • It’s a big, noisy country. We will never have full consensus on every issue. But, unless we remember and keep faith in the American ideal and vote for leaders who embrace it, that ideal will crumble into nothing.

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