Lowering the Floor of Political Decency

I write this only five days before November 3, America’s election day. Like many people, I recognize that the outcome of our elections may not be known for several days or weeks after that date. I also am quite anxious as to the ways in which President Trump and his Republican colleagues will attempt to disrupt and steal the election if it appears (as many expect) the results will not bring him a second term. Like people throughout the country I have undergone nonviolent direct action training in preparation for what long time activist George Lakey has called an attempted “presidential coup.” While preparing for the worst, I am hoping for a smooth transition. If somehow, Trump pulls off a legitimate election victory, I will be shocked and saddened as I was four years ago but will commit myself to work to undermine Trump’s efforts to destroy the basic values of our country.

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, a long-time critic of the president, has said that the Trump administration has lowered the floor of decency in politics with his lies, rants, and chaotic decisions. Sadly, many Republican politicians, as well as many American citizens, have followed Trump down this hole of immorality, degradation, and basic disrespect for human dignity. Joe Biden has made personal decency and character a major issue in this campaign but Brooks warns: “Here’s one thing we will never be able to shake, the awareness that our basic standards of decency are more fragile than we thought; the awareness that any year, some new leader may come along and bring us back to a world of no bottom.” That is where we are with Donald Trump.

The Lie

Leading up to the election, I have been troubled by the myriad of ways Republican leaders around the country have sought to block citizens’ right and ability to vote. From the get-go, Trump (without evidence) has claimed that mail-in voting would lead to widespread voter fraud. Republicans in California put up fake ballot retrieval boxes in an attempt to literally steal ballots that had been cast. Communities with large percentages of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) have had polling stations removed so that they must travel miles rather than blocks to cast their votes next week. In heavily Democratic cities like Philadelphia, the Republicans have pursued tactics designed to intimidate voters as they go to the polls. Numerous lawsuits have been filed and certainly will be filed after the election by the Republicans seeking to limit when and how mail-in votes can be counted. And of course, having rushed through the appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Trump is hoping that he will have an edge if the presidential election needs to be decided by that body.

When I drive around I see a lot of Trump-Pence signs and I notice that almost all of them have American flags attached to them. It as if Trump voters want to say they are the “real Americans,” whereas those voting for Biden are not. Seeing that, I first thought it was the height of hypocrisy to claim such avid patriotism while working tirelessly to undermine the electoral process. However when I think of Trump’s signature slogan “Make American Great Again,” I realize what he and his followers are hearkening back to is a time when African Americans were forcibly denied the right to vote, to a time when Civil Rights Activists literally gave their lives in places like Alabama and Mississippi to secure the right to vote for African Americans. They are hearkening back to a time when as a nation we ignored the cries of the poor, the refugee and the new immigrant and where major employers routinely called out the police to silence the demands of labor unions. So for Trump and his followers to suppress the vote is to try and silence those who are saying their lives and their voices matter, and have mattered and will matter in the years ahead. The America of MAGA is a lie and something that must be repudiated.

The Promise

I don’t long for that America that glorifies Whiteness and denies its history of oppression and genocide. I long for an America that has yet to be, an America that actually lives up to the values it espouses. Danielle Sered, author of Until We Reckon puts it this way: “Sometimes I think of America not as a place or a nation, but a promise. It is the only way I can continue to love this country.” In Philadelphia, we have a wonderful museum called the U.S. Constitution Center. Before visitors enter the area with the displays and artifacts, they are ushered into a theater-in-the-round and view a 10-minute multi-media presentation on the theme “We the People,” which reviews the basic values upon which the country was founded and the checkered history seeking to make those values a reality in American life. Every time I have seen that presentations (at least a dozen times), I am struck by how, like Sered, I believe in the promise of America, even as I fight to see those values fully lived out in our collective national life.

I have already voted and my ballot has been received.  I did not vote because I thought the men and women by whose name I made a mark were somehow superhuman, but because I believed they shared my hope and belief in the promise that is the United States of America. I am reminded of the words of Langston Hughes who wrote:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!


May we vote and work not for the America that was or is, but for the American that can be if we live into its promise.