Two seemingly unrelated events of last week underscore a continuing and persistent problem in American politics, one perhaps with a simpler solution than many realize.
One event was the astonishing set of queries put to Sarah Huckabee Sanders about whether White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly believes slavery should not have been abolished. The other was the interview of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the only African-American on the court, by Laura Ingraham, as she launched her new prime-time show on Fox News.
There were many striking comments by the soft-spoken Thomas, but the most riveting was his suggestion that our divisive politics have caused us to forget the national slogan still carried on our currency, E Pluribus Unum, "out of many one." We’ve forgotten the "unum," explained Thomas, in our embrace of the "pluribus."
What Thomas meant was that the politics of identity and racial grievance, so prominent in our national discourse and misguiding journalists, had gone too far; that it could give rise to a U.S. Marine four-star general and Gold Star father being accused of favoring repeal of the 13thAmendment,
It's extraordinary that such political ideology could still be dominant in so much of the mainstream media, academia, and many of our political parties.
The Democrats, the principal proponents of identity politics, have, as John Podhoretz recently wrote in the New York Post, in the past six years, "lost 60-plus House seats, nine Senate seats, 14 governorships and 1,000 state and local offices." Democrats also lost the presidency itself in the last election.
The genius of Donald Trump’s campaign was, by stressing his aim to "Make America Great Again," to convey a message of inclusion rather than exclusion. He was able successfully to call Americans together in pursuit of common interests.
Similarly, when Gen. Kelly, engaging in the analysis which prompted the odious query on slavery, had suggested that perhaps some sort of compromise might have avoided the Civil War, he was lamenting that party and national divisions in the 1850’s and 1860’s were so strident that war resulted. He was not, of course, suggesting the preservation of slavery, just as no one today maintains we should return to that abomination, only that a means of ending it might have been secured short of a war costing more than 600,000 lives, causing years of national distress.
Race remains the great intractable issue in the nation, as exemplified by the manifest injustice of a situation in which one race continues to be economically disadvantaged in terms of unemployment, crime, and educational opportunities.
The solution of one of our political parties appears to be to seek to remedy this by lamenting "White privilege." This solution seeks to stoke the dangerous fires of envy — by promoting the view that the economy is a zero-sum-game, also by employing the engines of government in Robin-Hood like fashion to engage in redistributive efforts, and additionally to invoke affirmative action aimed at the eventual equality of outcomes.
Mr. Trump, for all the obloquy aimed at him by his political opponents, grasped, as did Ronald Reagan in 1980, that a better policy was to use the fiscal tools available to Congress to maximize economic opportunity for all, thus expanding productivity and wealth eventually benefitting all Americans.
To put it as simply as possible, rather than redistribution, the policy of the Reagan and Trump administrations was to enhance the prosperity of all, and in the process, to encourage unification rather than division.
Justice Thomas, profoundly influenced by Frederick Douglass and by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — both of whom simply sought to have African-Americans treated in a manner equal to others (and offered not equality of outcome) but equality of opportunity —was, in his way, expressing the same sentiment as Gen. Kelly and President Trump.
This simple desire for human equality and dignity, the desire of Douglass, King, and Thomas, one to which our nation has always been committed, is obviously inconsistent with slavery and with racial and other forms of discrimination.
Rather than condemning each other for the means chosen to realize this desire, and for continuing politics as a figurative and sometimes literal blood sport, we ought to strive to understand the common humanity and the common historical national goals we share.
When our Federalist Framers maintained that there could be no order without law, no law without morality and no morality without religion, they too were expressing the hope that our Constitution and laws would bring us together in a nation committed to the dignity and prosperity of all. For a generation, a culture of political correctness with its attendant divisive ideology of individual "self-actualization," has dominated our courts, media, and academia.
That culture and ideology misled us about our enduring shared national goals. The struggle continues, but there are encouraging signs that the unlikely tribune, Mr. Trump, may have enabled a return to that heritage.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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