Category Archives: American ideals

Does America Have a Future?

Review of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book, How Democracies Die

Reviewed by Joseph Langen
It would be comforting to think that our American experiment in democracy can survive its current dangers as it has in the face of past threats. Yet our survival is not assured in today’s socially and politically turbulent climate.
How Democracies Die places our current challenge into the context of previous and more
current democracies which failed or at least struggled with their own crises. The authors report that in the past, democracies have collapsed in the face of violent attack.
More recently, democracies have crumbled due to insidious challenges from within. They see America as facing the second type of challenge.
They point out that the Constitution gives us basic rules to support the US democracy. Our society is further bolstered by unwritten norms, the most important being mutual toleration of rivals as a legitimate part of our society and restraint from attacking those with rival approaches to managing our society.
They note that American factions coexisted fairly well before the Civil War. Our country broke into open conflict during the Civil War and remained in conflict until the end of Reconstruction. After that we had another period of relative cooperation until the 1960’s Civil Rights Act. Cooperation has been declining since then, leaving us with racial equality on the books. Yet polarization has worsened over the years culminating in the Trump fiasco.
It appears that both sides cooperate better when racial equality is off the negotiating table, a sad state of affairs. Battles over civil rights, especially with regard to racial equality, have been joined by conflict over migration, religious beliefs and the nature and purpose of culture.
The book discusses three possible outcomes of our polarized society.
  1. First is a recovery of democracy. Trump and Trumpism fall or fade into irrelevance in the face of public disgust.
  2. Second is continuing and worsening of the divide with no tolerance or forbearance related to issues which divide us. At some point this trend would result in the death of a functioning democracy. This second possibility is on the horizon if Trumpian Republicans manage to control the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court with anti-democratic power.
  3. Third is continuation of polarization and disregard of unwritten conventions keeping a modicum of peace, resulting in political warfare with an uncertain outcome. Whether a blend of individual freedom and egalitarianism would survive remains to be seen.
For us to survive as a nation, we must restore the endangered guardrails of tolerance and forbearance as well as overcoming polarization and fair elections. This will require compromise and softening of stances by everyone on both sides, particularly with regard to political rhetoric in both the major political parties. We must also address the needs of those neglected in our society as well as developing social policies favorable to everyone rather than just those favored by the political side in power at the moment.
Will we be able to come together as a society despite our differences? That remains to be seen. Can we set aside our partisan ideals or at least soften them while we focus on building a society supportive of all its members?  This book clearly lays out the existential problems facing us, possible outcomes and what we need to do for our democracy to survive, Our future lies in the balance. Get ready to do your part.

The Perversion of Myth in America- Part 4 The Trumpian Myth

So far we have explored the nature of myth in a positive sense, a number of useful myths and some destructive myths in America. Now we turn to the myth which some see as creating an American crisis but which others see as the key to our salvation as a nation. We are taking about the Trumpian Myth. Let’s look at what Trump brings to the table.

Greek mythology contains the myth of Narcissus among many others. According to the legend, Narcissus was known for his beauty. A long life was predicted for him as long as he never recognized himself. He rejected the love of a nymph and fell in love with his own reflection in the water and eventually died either of frustration or possibly by killing himself.

There have been many theories about what is going on with Trump. One is that he has narcissistic personality disorder. Another is that he has antisocial personality disorder. Both are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM 5). A third option is that he has a combination of the two. 

A person diagnosed as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder must show at least five of the following symptoms:

      1. A grand sense of self importance.

      2. Preoccupation with dreams of unlimited power, success,

          physical attractiveness and love.

      3. Belief that he or she (usually he) is of special or high status.

      4. A need for excessive admiration.  

      5. A sense of entitlement and expectation of favorable treatment or


      6. Exploitation of other people to achieve personal goals.

      7. Lack of empathy regarding the needs and feelings of other people.

      8. Envy of other people or thinking that other people envy them.

      9. Arrogant behaviors and attitudes.

A person diagnosed as having Antisocial Personality Disorder must show  

at least three of the following symptoms:

  1. Repeated failure to follow social norms resulting in grounds for arrest.
  2. Engaging in deceitfulness.
  3. Impulsivity and not planning ahead.
  4. Irritability and aggressiveness.
  5. Reckless disregard or concern for the safety of other people.
  6. Chronic irresponsibility.
  7. Lack of remorse about hurting others.

I had no difficulty finding all of these symptoms in both groups as being present in Trump. Does that mean it is necessary to choose one diagnosis or another? He clearly shows patterns consistent with both diagnoses.

Although there is no combined diagnosis in the DSM-5,  Arlin Cuncic at discusses the idea of a narcissistic sociopath with  features of both the personality disorders we just reviewed. Here each of the two diagnoses intensify and make each other worse. As with each of the separate diagnoses, the combined pattern first shows itself during adolescence and most likely is due to both genetic and environmental factors. Cuncic describes a person with both as “on a quest for power and control, who uses the love and admiration of others as a tool to dominate and manipulate. There will be no guilt, no apologies, and no remorse coming from the narcissistic sociopath.”  This also appears to me to be a very apt description of Trump.

All of this brings us to the Trumpian Myth. Wikipedia describes A Big Lie as “a propaganda device by a politician used for political purposes- a great distortion or misrepresentation of the facts.”  It goes on to describe the term as one coined by Hitler in Mein Kampf as “a lie so colossal that no one would believe that someone could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

As I see it there are currently three parts to the Trumpian Myth:

1. The first is MAGA. Paul Blumenthal describes the part of the myth as “foretelling a great and cataclysmic future event where deliverance will arrive through the exertion and sacrifice of believers. The present order will be swept away.” This is the promise on which Trump ran and which he promised to continue if reelected through the slogan “Keep America Great”

as if he had accomplished his goal during his administration of making America great.

In my assessment, he made a good start on sweeping away our democracy by diluting and crippling many of the federal agencies which support democracy. He did this mostly by restrictive policies and installation of agency directors who either had no idea how to run their agencies or who had ideas of how to cripple them. Yet he does deserve credit for supporting the COVID vaccines although he did undermine other aspects of containing the pandemic. Other than supporting the vaccine development, I had trouble finding anything positive unless you were super-rich and wanted a tax cut.

2. The second part of the myth is that the January 6 attack on the Capitol was not an attack but a “love fest” and that Trump did not incite it. In addition, any Republican who does blame Trump for any part in the insurrection (or lack of insurrection) needs to be purged from the ranks. 

3. The third part is that Trump actually won the 2020 election. Phony votes were supposedly introduced by Democrats or by others acting in their interest. Seemingly endless recounts and sham recounts have been the order of the day in order to expose the “Big Steal” with more planned across the country.

Under the pretense of voter fraud which must have taken place in their view,

Republicans are hard at work in many states to reintroduce restrictive laws to limit voting by undesirable individuals who might vote against Trump such as Blacks, and other people of color as well as poor and younger voters.

These aspects of the Trump myth are touted by the loudest voices in the Republican Party with practically total support or at least lack of objection on the part of Republican House and Senate members of Congress.

The final post in this series will focus on what to do about all of this.

Review of American Dialogue by Joseph Ellis

I have been looking for some perspective on the current issues facing our country. By chance, I happened across Ellis’s very recent book.  I approached it with great anticipation and was not disappointed.

Ellis discusses four major issues and four of the founders of our country who wrestled with them. They include race and Thomas Jefferson, economic equality and John Adams, constitutional law and James Madison as well as foreign affairs and George Washington.

He discusses historical considerations which guided each man in his approach to influencing the foundation of our government. He also explores the moral considerations, personal convictions, political pressures and competing values facing each of them. He also discusses the implications for our infant republic as well as for our current one.

Ellis also documents how the struggles of these founders still hold a prominent place in our present day efforts to maintain our democracy. Particularly difficult for us is how to find and maintain a balance of capitalism and equality of opportunity for all of our citizens. Equally challenging is how to balance our own needs as a country while maintaining our balance with other nations.

The author also considers the focus of our current administration on withdrawal from participation in world citizenship. In its place is the choice to use our military and economic power to get what we want rather than relying on diplomacy.  As a result we are fast losing our place in the world as an example of how democracy might work for all of our citizens and perhaps for those of other countries.

We face serious challenges as did our country’s founders. In order to survive, we must find a way to meet our current challenges together rather than allowing ourselves to be pitted against one another. We found a way to do this in the early days of our republic. It is time for us to step up to the challenge once again. Reading this book will provide you with a perspective on our current challenges in historical perspective. 

We have made progress through the course of the centuries since the establishment of our country. Slavery is gone. People of color have gained a voice in our current affairs. Women have also found their voice. In that sense, our country has become more representative than it was initially. Yet we still have a factions seeking the supremacy of white men. We have work to do and it is time to keep going.   

The American War between Freedom and Equality

It is a strange fact that freedom and equality, the two basic ideas of democracy, are to some extent contradictory. Logically considered, freedom and equality are mutually exclusive, just as society and the individual are mutually exclusive.

~Thomas Mann~

I found it hard to digest the above statement. I was raised to believe that liberty and equality were both cornerstones of the American adventure. Yet looking back at the history of America and the experience of living here today, it is clear that we have  a conflict between these two ideals.

The American Revolution took place with the goal of freedom from the tyranny and colonial control by the British Empire. Leaders of the revolution fought for the right to make their own decisions by casting aside the British yoke. Equality was not much of an issue. Although our founding fathers maintained that all men were created equal. Yet this equality did not include women, the natives we pushed aside or other people of non-European extraction. In particular, slaves imported from Africa were seen at best as three-fifths of a person for legislative reasons.

The issue of equality came into prominence in the mid nineteen hundreds. It boiled over in the Civil War with northerners fighting for equality of all people and southerners fighting for freedom to exercise their right to control others, namely slaves whom they viewed as possessions rather than people.

Freedom and equality have remained issues up until the present. Liberals struggle for the equal rights of all in terms of medical care, education and judicial fairness to name a few. Conservatives struggle to maintain their power and control leaving others to manage their own affairs. That may be oversimplified but I think it includes the main issues.

In recent years both sides have retreated to their corners insisting they are right and those in other camps are wrong. Once we were able to discuss our differences as individuals. Our representatives in government were also able to listen to each other and work toward agreements which would be at least tolerable to both sides. Now the struggle is seen as us versus them from both perspectives.

We have allowed the current power structure to erode our ability to listen to each other and seek ways to compromise. We have also allowed our country to be seen as abandoning our role as a world leader and focusing only on our self-centered interests.

As we face off with each other and with the rest of the world we run the risk of becoming marginalized in the conversation about how to move forward. We have the choice of continuing down this path or opening our ears to hear each other. What we choose will have serious consequences, good or bad, for the future of our society.

Action steps:  

  • Learn to listen to those with whom we disagree.
  • Look for areas of agreement upon which we can build.
  • Seek areas in which we can negotiate.
  • Acknowledge those who help us.
  • Thanks Bob for inspiring me to write this article.

Paths to a Nonviolent America

Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.

~Mahatma Gandhi~

Once again we are wracking our brains trying to find an effective way to combat violence in our country, most recently in our schools. Fighting anything suggests that we are approaching the issue with violent means.  We seem to forget that such approaches only add fuel to the fire.

If fighting violence is not the answer, what is? We can approach the problem in a number of ways. Most obvious is gun control. Self protection and hunting are legitimate reasons to have and use guns. Yet we do not need assault weapons for either purpose any more than we need explosive devices, armored rockets or atomic bombs in our personal possession. It is time for us to be reasonable in the degree to which we allow the use of guns in the hands of individuals. Laws about who can own what weapons and under what circumstances need to be considered in sane discussion by all of us including voters and elected representatives.

Gun rights activists are quick to point out that guns do not kill people by themselves. They are right. We also need to look at the reasons for violence. The main reason is anger boiling over in individuals who feel marginalized, beaten down and frustrated to the point that they see revenge as their only option. Responding to violence is a challenge for the rest of us.

We develop our attitudes in our family. If you are raised by angry or violent parents, chances are that you will become an angry and violent teen and adult. If everyone was raised to respect others regardless of differences, we would have a good head start toward a nonviolent society.

Another influence on our values and priorities is the example set by those leading and governing our country. An executive branch in complete disarray undermines our ability to have faith that the principles on which our country was founded will remain important. A federal government with legislators in the grip of partisan gridlock also fails to lead us anywhere positive. Both branches show us a pattern of anger rather than any sense of cooperation in our best interest. We can’t easily get either branch to change because we want them to, but we do have the option of electing individuals more responsive to our needs.

Other factors leading to anger and violence include poverty as a result of racism and discrimination, prejudice against individuals and groups, limiting their ability to benefit from the opportunities theoretically available to all of us. Discriminatory pay, unequal legal and criminal procedures, and the ability of the wealthy to buy privileges for their sole advantage also make their contribution. Again we have the option to elect people more responsive to the needs of everyone. It often seems that we have little power as individuals to change our society. Our votes are perhaps our most powerful tool. Our challenge is to learn to appreciate each other and work together to find leadership which respects all of us.

After living through the Brexit vote, Trump’s election is a familiar indictment of humanity


The night the UK voted to leave the European Union, those of us Brits who opposed the idea started out watching with a sick mixture of hope and fear. As results began to come in, there was the sinking sensation that something we wholeheartedly believed was wrong and damaging could come to pass. We asked ourselves: How could our fellow humans—people we live side-by-side with, people we respect—want this?

 The night America elected Donald Trump as its 45th president felt like it had some parallels: a
desperate hope that a country wouldn’t be swayed by fear, isolationism, and the rhetoric of “them
against us.” The nagging terror that it would.
The next morning, these are some of the people who are looking at America’s choice, aghast:
people who have experienced misogyny, racism, discrimination, harassment or bullying of any
kind. People who have witnessed it. People who think one of the roles of government is to protect
us from those things. Excerpt from Cassie Werber’s article in Quartz- Read more.

Fear of refugees is unworthy of American ideals

The longstanding crisis of Syrian refugees fleeing the excruciating violence that has consumed their country collided in the streets of Paris with the security crisis posed by Islamist terrorists. No, that’s not quite right. None of the terrorists was a refugee. Nearly all, if not all, were French or Belgian nationals and some second-generation immigrants from the Mideast. It was not in the world of facts, but in the world of fears, that the two crises collided.

Excerpt from National Catholic Reporter Editorial- read more