I returned in November from leading a World Affairs Council tour in Saudi Arabia. Once again, I found that the experience of the extremely unfamiliar teaches me not only about “them,” but very much about “us.”
What I reflected on in Saudi Arabia is what repression feels like, how it hangs in the air of so many countries, and how much we have to be thankful for as Americans.
Amid the impeachment drama and the pervasive belief that our country has become divided into hostile tribes, perhaps even not too far from violence against one another, I returned to the free air of the United States with a renewed clarity. I saw not only the advantages of our political and economic system but also that among the fundamental pillars of our national success is the implicit respect and enormous trust Americans put in one another.
When a traffic light before us turns green, it does not occur to us that people on the perpendicular road won’t stop for their red light because of their political views. We trust it is safe to go through the green light, whether our fellow drivers are red or blue.
When we board an airplane, we don’t ask who the pilot voted for in the last election. Nor do we think about that as we head to surgery, regarding the doctors and nurses who will be in the operating room.
When we go to the supermarket and see a quality and quantity of foods beyond the imagination of kings of the past, we give no thought to the political persuasion of any of the people who have to do their jobs just right for all that food to await us in that store.
It is just not the case that we live our lives in warring tribes. Indeed, day in and day out, we put our very lives, and certainly the quality of our lives, in the hands of multitudes of strangers we will never meet, from every ethnic, religious, racial, gender, and ideological background.
Yet this everyday respect and trust is absent in our current politics. The red/blue, MAGA/progressive divides seem as deep as similar splits in the 1960s, and perhaps nearly as intense as the animal spirits that produced Civil War in the 1860s.
Returning from a place like Saudi Arabia, where rights Americans take for granted don’t exist, makes me all the more confused as to why. What the hell are we so mad at each other about?
So, you think KFC is disgusting and I think the same about kale. Shall we take up arms?
There is just no objective basis for the present level of animus among our leaders and, too often, our ordinary citizens.
If lefty Democrats could get their policy dreams fulfilled, America wouldn’t become like Venezuela or the old Soviet Union. It might be rather more like Denmark or France.
Maybe you don’t like that idea. But is it an apocalyptic vision?
Likewise, if the Right won it all, abortion would only be available to a large majority of American women, rather than a constitutional right for all, and gay couples might have to shop around to find a respectful wedding cake baker.
Perhaps you find both of those ideas repugnant, but is this also, or either, an apocalyptic vision?
And, truth be told, the maximum goals of both sides are equally impossible to achieve anyway, blocked by the endless ways our policy-making processes force compromise and incrementalism. Regardless of how much candidates for president may promise, it would take totalitarian power to implement.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren aren’t going to live to see private health insurance abolished, and Donald Trump will never see a giant border wall or mass deportation of the many millions who reside here without legal status. Never. Neither.
But America works still, despite all this madness.
Here’s just one example. While President Trump made us alone among major nations to reject the Paris Climate Accord, the invisible hand of American ingenuity has also made us the only major carbon emitter on track to meet the reduction goals promised in Paris.
It’s progress without regard to politics. And that may just well be a great way to summarize much of the best of American history and most of what our founders had in mind when they set out to create a nation pledged to moral equality and a government which empowers, not overpowers, its people.
I’ve visited 100 countries now, with Saudi Arabia just the most recent reminder that we Americans have far more for which to be grateful, and around which to unite, than any other people on earth.