Today is the 240th anniversary of the birth of our nation. The Declaration of Independence was signed (at least apocryphally) on this date long, long ago. It stated that as a nation, “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
This is such a powerful and simple statement. Every single one of us, no matter who we are or what we do for a living, is equal to the other. We all have the same basic rights; we should all be allowed to live freely and be happy as best we’re able, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of someone else to do the same thing. That is the ideal that should be the North Star for every action our country takes, the opportunity to make sure anyone in the country — or the world — has these rights.
As with anything, our country is imperfect — because it’s operated by imperfect people. We allow our fears and desires, our greed and jealousies, our worst instincts to determine what we do more often than not. This happens especially when we get together in crowds. It feels like we’ve been taught to believe that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a zero-sum game. If someone else is allowed to do what makes them happy — even if it doesn’t harm or restrict me — then it means that I don’t get to be.
The ideal of personal freedom is a great one, and it’s what makes this country such a beacon of hope around the world when it strives for that ideal. But that ideal requires significant responsibility to be achieved; in order to make sure that there is a level playing field for everyone out there, we must take care to protect the vulnerable from the powerful. Our government must make sure that those of us without money or influence has a chance to exercise our rights just as well as the richest multi-billionaire. And in order to make sure our government can do that, we the people must furnish the government with the people and tools necessary to achieve that goal.
Because our country is full of people from all races, backgrounds, religions and philosophies, just exactly what that means will be different for everyone — and that’s OK. There is nothing wrong with different interpretations of what the government should and should not do. Sometimes, the will of the people will carry that in a conservative direction; what we have (or what the founders intended) works well and there isn’t much that should be changed. Other times, the people will call for a more progressive direction; times have changed, and our relationship with life and liberty and happiness has shifted accordingly. The government also needs to change in order to reflect this.
Recently, however, the tension between conservatism and progressivism has grown to the point that the fabric of our country is tearing apart. Our bases have grown further apart and worse, more intractable. Instead of recognizing that our colleagues across the aisle simply want what’s best for our country and have different ideas of what that means, we’ve taken to calling them our enemy. To conservatives, I’m part of an invading horde who wants nothing less than to tear down America and replace it with a godless socialist paradise that looks more like Soviet Russia than anything. And to progressives like me, conservatives are heartless racists who only want to make sure America is white and stupid and loaded with guns. Neither of these images are true. But we buy them when the people we admire in our camps perpetuate them.
The truth is we need each other. Progressives need conservatives to remind them of traditions in our country that still work; to encourage more efficient and smarter ways for the government to work; to take practical considerations into account for policy. And conservatives need progressives to remind them of ways the world is changing; that their experience isn’t universal, and others have a different kind of struggle achieving the American dream; to dream about radical ways in which our country might be better than we or the Founding Fathers ever imagined. In a healthy society, we forgive each other’s flaws, recognize each other’s strengths and respect each other’s perspectives.
I want my country to be one in which I can disagree with a conservative friend or colleague and respect them, knowing that the feeling is reciprocated. I want to be certain that my government recognizes my basic human rights, and that my perspective and experience is understood and woven into the fabric of America as a whole. I want my friends to know that I respect their traditions — no matter what they are — and that we can have conversations about the things we believe without demonizing those beliefs or the people who hold them. I want a country that recognizes how interdependent we are, and how we’re better for those entanglements. I want people to listen when they’re told they’re being exclusive or prejudicial. And I want people to listen to the people who want the same lives they’ve always had, and why these changes are upsetting to them. We can’t understand each other without entering into a dialogue, and that dialogue requires we both speak clearly, respectfully, and listen just as well.
Today, I really want to recognize my interdependence on the people I disagree with, but respect. You make this country great, and I appreciate your contribution to my life and my world.