A New Year’s resolution for America

Is our country ripping itself apart?

There's a famous anecdote – possibly apocryphal – about the time Benjamin Franklin, when leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787, was approached by a woman asking what kind of government the clandestine gathering had produced.

"A republic," Franklin is said to have replied, "if you can keep it."

I've been thinking about that line – and the idea behind it – a lot lately, as we stand at the precipice of another new year and look in the rearview at an unsettling 2017. There's an undeniable fragility to this moment in time, a sense that the country is ripping itself asunder, perhaps irreparably.

Sure, there's Donald Trump, a corporeal incarnation of malice, narcissism, self-delusion, mendacity and graft, helped into office by a meddling foreign government and the racism of many of his supporters. But it's more than that. It's also the widening gap between rich and poor – U.S. income inequality ranks among the highest in developed countries – and a social safety net that is threatened while the wealthiest are showered with tax benefits, something of a parallel to the waning days of the ancien régime. There are the increasingly authoritarian proclivities of the ruling party and its leader (and its subservient propaganda outlets).

There are naked legislative and congressional gerrymanders that render urban minority votes less meaningful than rural white ones. (And, for that matter, there's the U.S. Senate, where two-thirds of the nation's citizens will be represented by less than one-third of senators by 2040, as more people migrate to the biggest states.) There's the self-segregation of social media, amplifying enmity and reinforcing beliefs we already hold, whatever the reality. There's the rise of the alt-right and white supremacist groups. And there's the zero-sum mentality permeating our politics.

All of that, of course, ignores two existential threats to both the country and the planet: the administration's refusal to act on climate change at the behest of its fossil-fuels backers, and its saber-rattling with a nuclear-armed North Korea.

None of this bodes well, considering that this anxious undercurrent exists amid a growing economy that has added jobs every month for almost eight years. (Side note: Whenever Trump brags about the economy, remember it's a classic case of being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.) Imagine what happens when that inevitably goes south.

The rearview of 2017 is indeed unsettling. But America has survived over the last 23 decades – two world wars, one civil war, the Great Depression, the Cold War. It's survived the corruption of Richard Nixon and the incompetence of George W. Bush, the fecklessness of James Buchanan and the genocide of Andrew Jackson. And the republic will also survive the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

But only if we can keep it.

"The brevity of [Franklin's] response," the late historian Richard Beeman once wrote, "should not cause us to undervalue its essential meaning: Democratic republics are not merely founded upon the consent of the people, they are also absolutely dependent upon the active and informed involvement of the people for their continued good health."

For all the perfidy and avarice and chaos of the present regime, 2017 also gave hope for the New Year. We saw it in the Women's March, in the protests of the Muslim ban at airports across the country, in the mass demonstrations against racism and white supremacy, in the swell of activism that prevented the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, in the rise of the resistance, in the increasing outspokenness of the religious left, in the elections in Virginia and Alabama and elsewhere – all examples of that "active and informed involvement of the people" pushing back at encroachments on democratic norms and basic human decency.

What Franklin was saying 230 years ago was that the republic can only be maintained with perpetual vigilance, lest it devolve into despotism. The first year of the Trump administration has only underlined his point.

The second year of the Trump administration will be no different. It's up to us to resist the White House's racial revanchism. It's up to us to counter fiction with fact, to demand reality-based policymaking. And, most important, it's up to us to defeat those politicians who, because they want to ban abortion or shower their benefactors with tax goodies or start another war in the Middle East, tolerate or facilitate the president's abuses of power.

This is a time for resolutions, so this is mine for 2018: Throw the bums out, and keep the damn republic.


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