Like a gale that rips off the roofs in a small town, the lingering trauma of Jan. 6 has exposed basic truths about American life. Some of these are intellectual, as they pertain to the U.S. Constitution. The 12th Amendment to our founding document was being implemented inside the U.S. Capitol at the moment violent insurrectionists were breaking down its doors and windows.
Another foundational element of American life was violated that day — an aspect of American life that is more emotional than intellectual, but one with a profound influence on our national prosperity and level of contentment.
Many values constitute America. There is freedom of speech. Also freedom of religion. For many Americans, personal empowerment is defined by the right to bear arms.
Underneath these and other bedrock freedoms lies an emotional truth that is not written down. For lack of a better word, call it consistency. In the most basic terms, we have a justified expectation that when we wake up in the morning the lights will turn on. We expect that we will not find that there’s been a coup overnight within City Hall. We expect that when we drive down our city’s streets, we’ll not be stopped by a mob. We assume the banks will operate.
We take all of this for granted. But that is not the case in many other countries. And that’s one reason why the United States has always beckoned immigrants as well as investment.
Here’s how one local immigrant sees it. “The ordinary is truly precious.” She adds: “Immigrants know this.” They have come to America from places where all manner of daily disruption is commonplace. This kind of chronic instability is like being in an inescapable bad relationship — inescapable, that is, except by taking the drastic step of relocating to a different nation.
Countries that become mired in cycles of political volatility suffer “brain drain,” as those with gumption and resources seek security elsewhere. For the majority who either choose to endure in place or who have no practical choice, life becomes a toothache dogged by worry and underachievement. Who wants to start a new family or business in a place where officials are corrupt, where public services are undependable, where warring political factions can destroy decades of work in a single riot?
This is what the U.S. risks if we are unable to coalesce around a rational middle ground that cherishes an element of stability and predictability. Far from being boring, the traits that made America great serve as a foundation for creativity and risk taking. Just as children who grow up in supportive families with high expectations may never fully realize how lucky they had it, citizens of smoothly functioning nations can scarcely recognize how privileged they are.
The dividends of living in such a country may be invisible to most. But they enrich us in countless ways. America’s stability means we are able to inexpensively borrow whatever we need to springboard us out of what might otherwise be a pandemic-induced depression. Our reputation for strength shields us, to some extent, from attacks by our adversaries.
The horror show of Jan. 6 badly bruised our reputation for stability. Prolonged civil unrest has also stripped the luster off several U.S. cities including Portland.
It’s often said that the first step toward getting better is recognizing you have a problem. In today’s U.S., there’s no shortage of those who decry both real and imagined shortcomings — nor should we ever cease striving to ensure political, legal and economic justice for all. Our problems are comparatively easy to see.
Ben Franklin, our pragmatic founding father, wrote in 1789 that “Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.”
If transported to today, Franklin would worry about how many of us fail to appreciate what we have. Franklin would recognize citizens who cherish the extraordinary value of normal operations are the key to an enduring republic.
Even Franklin admitted he didn’t like every bit of the Constitution, but he recognized the whole package was a recipe for enduring American success. Healing the damage to our nation starts with recommitting ourselves to preserving the preciousness of the ordinary.