America -- The Republic of Nothing?
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Cross-posted from the National Post.
As the United States celebrates its 237th anniversary this week, the country is undergoing dramatic changes demographically, structurally and ideologically. Last week, the Supreme Court made historic decisions about race relations and gay marriage, while the Senate advanced a major immigration reform, proposing a 13-year-process for transforming 11 million illegal aliens into citizens. America’s face is changing. But as the country becomes more diverse, dynamic, and broadminded, the challenges of retaining some ideological glue, some social stability, and some cultural thickness are growing exponentially. As America builds a Republic of Everything, it must not build a Republic of Nothing.
The U.S. is now the third largest country in the world by population, with 316 million residents. It is a less white America, with 72.4 percent deemed white, 12.6 percent black or African American, and 16.3 percent considered Hispanic or Latino (some of whom are also “white,” some of whom are also “black,” which shows how artificial these categories are). And it is a growing America, attracting immigrants, especially from Latin America, South America and Asia -- with 13 percent of the population foreign born. Despite an ongoing recession, legislative paralysis, aging infrastructure, and foreign policy headaches, the U.S. remains the world’s beacon, luring millions from impoverished dictatorships with dreams of prosperity and liberty.
Last week’s big moves celebrated America as a land of redemptive change. Ultimately, the battle over the Voting Rights Act was a fight over just how much progress blacks have made since 1964, and just how anachronistic remedies from the time have become. Similarly, the gay marriage decision and the proposed immigration legislation -- which still faces hurdles in the House -- revealed an America that is more pluralistic, more sensitive, more welcoming of difference. I have never seen such a major attitudinal turnaround occur so rapidly. Four years ago, many Democrats supported legislation banning gay marriage to appear as safe, mainstream politicians. Today, even many Republicans understand that fighting gay marriage is the politically riskier step. Similarly, in 2012, many Republicans learned that fighting immigration reform is a losing issue. Most Americans want to integrate those currently designated illegal into the country, without being inundated by more illegals.
The most unfortunate aspect of Windsor v. United States, wherein the Supreme Court invalidated part of the Defense of Marriage Act, was that the change originated with the Court -- and overran a democratically enacted law. The decades-long abortion stalemate has taught that social change progresses best when it comes from the state legislatures, the Congress, the governors and the president, not the Courts. Still, in this case, more so than the abortion case of Roe v. Wade, the Court followed public opinion rather than pioneering it. This is not a legal argument about the constitutional rights or wrongs, but a pragmatic argument about the politics of change in America.
Even Americans who are uncomfortable with these changes can take pride in this kinder, gentler America; this looser, less exclusive America, this forgiving, open America. The legal changes prove that, as the sociologist Alan Wolfe explains, “Thou Shalt Not Judge Thy Neighbor,” has become American’s eleventh commandment.
Today’s America also has 2 million people in prison, and 4 out of ten babies born to unmarried women (with 7 out of ten African American babies born to unmarried women).
In this age wherein everything is disposable including family, Americans need more grounding, more moral fiber. Elements of the old morality propped up prejudices we now reject. But a life just based on tolerating others lacks internal meaning -- and the kind of social adhesive necessary to make a nation great.
Americans should worry about the thinness of their collective cultural identity, the transience of many of their concerns, their addiction to trendiness and technology. Building a great nation requires a commitment to big ideas, transcendent thoughts, and altruistic ideals. Some of America’s greatest ills today, including rising debt, a declining work ethic, a tidal wave of selfishness, an obsession with popular culture, a compulsion to consume, an inability to compromise or plan or save or sacrifice, stem from today’s cultural and ideological flimsiness. In identity terms, the thinness of things can be liberating and welcoming; the thickness of things can be grounding and ennobling. Both individual and national greatness require a balance. On both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, we need a republic of something.
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