Looking past false choices

The goal of politics, in its lowest common denominator, is to persuade you that you face a zero-sum decision.

ALEX BRANDON/AP
President Donald Trump announces the 1776 Commission at the National Archives Museum, Sept. 17, 2020, in Washington.

Last month, standing in the National Archives Museum, President Donald Trump announced the creation of the 1776 Commission. The intent was to recenter American education on patriotic themes. “The only path to national unity is through our shared identity as Americans,” the president said.

But he made clear that his commission did not come out of nowhere. It very consciously counters efforts by the left that have “warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies,” he said. Specifically, he excoriated the 1619 Project, a massive New York Times enterprise that, in its own words, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Critics have said the project seeks to replace 1776 with 1619, casting America as a nation founded on oppression, not freedom.

A number of readers have reached out to me on this topic, essentially asking where the Monitor stands. Especially with an election coming up, it’s a good question to consider.

The goal of politics, in its lowest common denominator, is to persuade you that you face a zero-sum decision. “If you vote for me, good things will happen. If you vote for him, bad things will happen.” That’s always been true, but in times of polarization it goes into overdrive, because there’s little energy in the middle to moderate those tendencies. The debate goes to the extremes because that’s where the fears are, and fears get many people to vote.

But that doesn’t mean those fears are right. The danger of polarization is that it uses our fears to warp the picture, presenting politics as a war between two false choices. Law and order and anarchy. Marxism and hedonistic capitalism. Total border shutdown or rampant illegal immigration.

In that light, we can ask: Must we choose between the narratives of 1619 and 1776?

The American Revolution forged a nation whose founding ideals reshaped the world in profound ways, showing that individual liberties are not only practical but also essential, and that government put responsibly in the hands of the people is the best defense against tyranny. Meanwhile, the consequences of American slavery have shown – and continue to show – the terrible price the country and its citizens pay when the universality of those ideals is only partially embraced.

The preamble of the Constitution speaks of the need to form a more perfect union. This is the essence of the American experiment – a recognition that government can be used for the betterment of humanity. The legacy of 1619 shows how deeply flawed the application of those principles were at the nation’s founding with regard to race, and how they remain flawed today. But the test of America has always been progress. The ideals of 1776 demand, not perfection now, but constant movement toward a more perfect state.

So it is possible to choose both 1619 and 1776, knowing one shows the unfulfilled promise of the other – and the necessity of always pressing onward. 

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