Severed mock-heads, contemporized Julius Caesar productions, and a disgusting, politically motivated assassination attempt on Republican Congressmen have taken hold of the American consciousness just within the past few weeks. Those elected leaders of all political persuasions who have condemned these things have done so rightfully. Leaders like Nancy Pelosi, who in the aftermath of the attack on Congressman Scalise called for civility and slammed Republicans the very next morning, fail their own litmus test for dialogue. Calls for civil discourse must be met with actual practice if they are to transform the American political landscape. This isn't merely a matter of politesse, but a pressing issue of moral character that reflects our identity as a people and legacy as a generation.
During George Washington's presidency, the lines for political disagreement were already being drawn. Washington did his best to bridge the factionalism he saw developing, but was unable to prevent the parties that formed. This was not a failure on Washington's part, but merely reflects human nature: we are unique, and we do not always agree. Many Americans today reflect on Washington's historical distaste for parties with the respect due a prophecy fulfilled, and seek a more unified nation.
There are transformative periods in American history where there is a kind of social, cultural and political alignment (consider Andrew Jackson's Era of Good Feelings and Ronald Reagan's conservative revolution of the 1980s) where Americans are largely united and in agreement. These times are exceptions, however, and it is their impact more than the times themselves which ultimately come to matter. Reagan's revolution shifted the country on a more conservative path: today, it is rare to find Americans who advocate for higher taxes, and some polls show a growing number of Americans oppose abortion. Likewise, Reagan's expression of the Biblically-based, Winthrop-articulated vision of a shining city on a hill — a model America for the world to look up to — is something we still carry deep within us, and is something for which many of us still strive.
Because of Reagan, we tend to prefer candidates for office who make strong stands without rancor, and who elevate politics to a moral plane. We do so because we see Reagan himself as a shining example of that model idea put into practice. He led by example: an imperfect but morally conscious, good-hearted, optimistic human being who saw the best in America, and charged Americans with upholding and implementing a better future not only for themselves, but for future generations. As conservative philosopher Edmund Burke once noted, society is a kind of contract between the dead, the living and the unborn. The world we, the living, inherited from those gone before us we will pass along to our children, and they to theirs.
And so we have a sacred moral duty in the passing on of our nation to the future. Reagan understood this clearly. Largely because of Reagan, we won the Cold War and Communism worldwide was rolled back. Young people today have grown up without the threat of all-out nuclear war. Horrific, nuclear-based regimes like those in North Korea are few. Reagan viewed nuclear weapons not merely as a strategic issue, but one of a greater moral dimension in which the lives of the living and the unborn were at stake. All issues can be said to have a moral, Burkean dimension to them — including our discourse. After all, words can indeed lead to action.
The question we must ask ourselves in our everyday lives is, what kind of America are we creating for the future? Will we allow our vitriolic, personal attacks and demonization of political opponents to pave the way for even worse climates to come? Or will we refuse to engage in such disgusting behavior and treat one another with respect though we may disagree? How do we lament such behavior, and do nothing about it?
We could easily divest blame on those like Pelosi, and resign ourselves to the climate as it is — or we could take action by priding ourselves on moral conduct. How we choose to go about our differences is reflective of our moral composition and our regard for the future — a future composed of human beings with the natural rights we also enjoy. If we deny a better world for the future, we infringe their rights. Reagan knew that how we lead is how others will follow. We don't necessarily need elegance in conversation, but we do need kindness. Blame is not sufficient.
We are mortal; we are imperfect; we are human. We make mistakes, and we seek forgiveness. We always try to do better. We look to Reagan as a model of what we, and our discourse can be, but we ourselves are necessary for transforming our national landscape. But by refusing to change, we necessitate harm to the coming generation. By refusing to act, we condemn it. Either way, we abandon our sacred moral obligations, and abandon the future.
What will our legacy be?