I was recently reminded of a famous quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the classic text The Little Prince. Saint-Exupéry offered a particularly relevant lesson for our current politics: "If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." I believe Americans are in need of a refresher course on how to long for the sea.
If 2008 was an election marked by hope and readiness for change, 2010 can be understood as an election fueled by fear and loathing. On the right, disaffected Tea Parties are steeped in rhetoric about the president’s secret religious affiliations, about the burden of deficits, about economic competition from undocumented workers, about America’s flagging international influence and about the terrifying prospect of expanding the social safety net. On the left, progressives can barely hide their disgust with healthcare reform they deem insufficient and financial reform they find laughably weak, with Democrats who seem unable to silence the filibustering GOP, with a president who did not immediately withdraw all American combat troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the emerging populist backlash. Both sides wring their hands about the corrupting influence of corporate money in elections and fret about the continuing economic crisis. Each side accuses the other of stupidity, arrogance, racism and inadequate patriotism.
Despite the apocalyptic gloom of Democrats and the premature haughtiness of Republicans, the 2010 election cycle is unexceptional thus far. Democrats are likely to lose seats in November, but the party of the president routinely shrinks in the House in the first midterm. The Democratic majority in the Senate will likely deteriorate, so breaking a filibuster will be all the more difficult, but having a sixty-plus majority is a rare occurrence in the Senate. Neither of these election outcomes is particularly surprising or historic. Since the mid-1950s voters have been notoriously fickle in their partisan attachments and surprisingly enthusiastic about divided government. The utter mendacity of these elections may prove to be the most surprising part about them.
The anxieties and anger animating the electorate, however, are reasonable cause for concern. There is nothing to fear in robust disagreement among citizens or in the predictable shifts of power that follow elections. There is real danger in a political environment unable to tolerate ideological differences and unwilling to build even the most tenuous bridges across partisan divides.
At the moment, Americans seem so intent on gathering the tools and perfecting the plans for our individual boats that we have lost sight of the immense sea. We are faced with the challenge of pursuing our short-term policy agendas while remaining cognizant of our long-term national interests, and, more important, we must remain aware of our limited ability to predict what our future challenges will be. Like our founders we are part of the continuous process of making and remaking America. I am always excited to lecture my students about the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s 1776 manifesto is easily my favorite of the founding documents. My respect for it is rooted in the human frailties and ethical failures of Jefferson himself. Jefferson was an enslaver who held his own children in intergenerational human bondage. He was a misogynist who could not fathom women as equal partners at home or in government.
But the Declaration of Independence is an extraordinary document that surpasses Jefferson. It is a social contract that asserts the self-evident nature of human equality at a time when such equality was anything but self-evident. It is a document that boldly asserts the primacy of human flourishing and the responsibility of governments to ensure that flourishing. It is a document whose promise has never been fulfilled, but in its poetic and powerful language it paints a picture of the sea so compelling that we cannot help but long for it. It is a political vision so extraordinary that even the effort of leaning toward its fulfillment is ennobling.
Compared with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution is a feeble and flawed document. The Constitution codified slavery, women’s inequality and elitism. It crafted a system purposeful in its inefficiency and limited in its accountability. Repeatedly the anemic beginnings of a truly democratic republic have been tweaked, amended and updated as we press toward the vision laid out in the Declaration of Independence. Today, the Tea Party is attempting to hijack the legacy of the American Revolution as though it belongs only to a single ideological tradition. But no one can put the ocean in their pocket. American revolutionary philosophy is so inherently, idealistically and optimistically broad-minded that it defies even the bigoted and limited men who crafted it.
This year of national discontent may yet be an opportunity to introduce meaningful structural reform. History tells us that some structural tinkering will produce good outcomes as well as unintended negative consequences. But the reforms are just tools; it is the motivation for these reforms that matters most. Many Americans joined the Obama coalition because the 2008 campaign consistently reminded us of the distance we had traveled as a nation and encouraged us to long for the endless immensity of a fully realized democratic promise. In January 2009 the work of shipbuilding began, and with it came the predictable disagreements about the specifics. We cannot fear these battles; without them we would build nothing. But even as we build, we must keep lifting our eyes to the horizon to renew our yearning for something greater than our own narrow victories.