As We Vote, Let Us Remember Who We Are as a People

Elections are times to show the world the character of our society.

Posted Oct 31, 2020

When I was a teenager about to leave home for some social event, my mother would sometimes make the following remark: “Remember who you are.” Other mothers, I learned, said similar things to their kids.

Those four words encouraged a significant shift in one’s vision of self. A person is not to see himself merely as an individual, who gets to do as he pleases and then experiences the purely private consequences of those choices. Instead, people must know that they belong to families, whose lifeways—and reputations—may alter because of any member’s behavior. For teenagers, school is another important form of involvement Selfish behavior sometimes discredits teachers, coaches, and classmates. The most outrageous forms of activity may even poison the community as a whole. In other words, people—even teenagers wishing to defy the restrictions of the adult world—must acknowledge that they can enact their worst or best selves. They can take a narrowly selfish line, perhaps indulging passions and self-interests, or they can take a bigger view that embraces their connections to others.

Such ideas are difficult for a young person to accept. Presumably, they become easier for adults, who have passed through some of the storms of youth and who now make decisions about the running of the world.

I make these comments because American citizens are now voting to determine which persons and policies will lead them in the years ahead. In a few days, there will be a final tally of votes and a declaration of winners. 

Many of those voters will take the narrowly selfish view described above. They will adjudge which candidate promises to do the most “for them.” That may mean pledges to keep their taxes low, to support their economic interests, or otherwise to prevent government from interfering with their possessions and privileges. Some will vote to reaffirm certain values or principles, sometimes just high-sounding phrases they learned growing up and which they rely on to give their existence a certain continuity. All too often, those beliefs merely express—and justify—a private lifestyle.

There are of course theories of electoral politics—and of societal functioning—that argue for exactly this pooling, or aggregation, of self-interest. If millions of individuals decide what is best “for them,” or so the thinking goes, the best society emerges. Selfishness is no sin; neither is the crudest kind of personal dealing.

The political scientist Edward Banfield held a different view, one that criticized what he called “private-regarding” politics. Banfield’s special concern was the political machines of certain big cities, which stressed the role of council members and party officials in doing favors for their constituents. Local politicians helped people get jobs, relaxed building codes, repaired streetlights, and even transported pregnant women to hospitals. In exchange, they demanded the loyalty—and votes—of those they assisted. Banfield argued that this trading of votes for favors violated the spirit of democracy. Instead, voters should be “public-regarding,” that is, they should consider what is best for the electorate as a whole.

It does not require much ingenuity to see that there are other ways of being selfish or “private-regarding.” More comfortably situated people may not need connections for jobs or trips to the hospital, but they can be just as narrow in their personal calculations. “This guy,” or so the thinking goes, “is one of us. He takes care of his people.”

There are have been many, more famous, calls for public-spiritedness. One that will be familiar to most readers is President Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961, where he appealed to his audience: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Perhaps an even more compelling call to patriotism came from Britain’s Winston Churchill, when he addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress on December 26, 1941. Responding to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 and to America’s entry into the war two days later, Churchill linked Britain’s circumstance with that of the U.S. and emphasized their common commitment to halting the Axis threat. As he declared, “What kind of people do they think we are? Is it possible that they do not realise that we shall never cease to persevere against them until they have been taught a lesson which they and the world will never forget.”

We should recall that Britain had been our enemy during the Revolution and the War of 1812. Britain did not support the Union during our Civil War. They were a major economic competitor. Many Americans were dubious of European alliances that would drag us into another struggle like War War I. The political philosophies of Roosevelt and Churchill were highly dissimilar. None of that mattered now. The course was clear. Americans must enter another prolonged engagement that would demand terrible sacrifices. Broader visions of societal “character” must triumph over private dealing.

An election of the current sort is another occasion to test our national character. Who are we as a people? Americans should take great pride in the fact that they live in one of the world’s great models of republican democracy. We are what Seymour Martin Lipset called the “first new nation,” forged from a confederation of several different colonies. We are also the most prominent example of an immigrant country, created by populations coming from across the world.

Who are we as a people? Conspicuously, we are the very people we fought in World War II, that is, the Germans and Japanese and Italians. Some of us have ancestors who came from Churchill’s England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Others made their way here from Scandinavia and the other regions of Western Europe.

Whatever animosities we may hold toward the current governments of countries like Russia, China, and Iran, we should remember that some of us are immigrants from those countries. Many more of us acknowledge our ancestry there.

Profoundly, we are the Africans, so many of whom came in chains, endured slavery, labored to produce America’s prosperity, and struggled for their rights. Today, people who trace their heritage to countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, and Ethiopia continue that quest.

Never forget that we are also the Native Americans, who first populated this region of the world and who were the caring stewards of the lands that others later claimed.

We are the Slavs, the Filipinos, and the Cambodians. We are the desert peoples of the Middle-East, many of whom have witnessed the degradation of their former homelands. We are Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, Catholics and Protestants.  

Increasingly, we come from other regions of the Western Hemisphere, especially from Spanish-speaking countries. Some of us are Cubans who found ourselves cast out by governmental changes. Some have families in Puerto Rico, a territory though not a state. And we are emphatically the Mexicans, “la raza,” who do so many things to enrich our public life and make our economy strong.

According to 2018 figures from the Migration Policy Institute, there are more than 44 million foreign-born people, or about 13.7% of our population of more than 325 million. About one-half of these, or 22 million, are immigrants who have completed naturalization processes and are American citizens. They can vote.  Although the sheer number of foreign-born person is the highest ever (with more than 1 million arriving each year), the percentage is not.  In 1890, 14.8% were foreign-born.

Immigrants from Mexico are the most numerous (at 25% of the total immigrant population. Those from India and China are 6% each, followed by Filipinos at 5%. 52% of the foreign-born are women. 31% of immigrants over 25 years old have a college or higher degree. California has the most immigrants (over 10 million) with Texas, New York, and Florida each having between 4 and 5 million. There are between 11 and 12 million unauthorized, or illegal, immigrants in this country.

I report these numbers to make a simple point. We Americans come from many different places, either as immigrants or as the ancestors of those newcomers. We concentrate our populations in different regions of the U.S. Some of us live predominantly in cities; others in small towns and rural areas. We do different jobs, observe different religions, converse in different languages, and follow different customs. We occupy different strata in America’s vast class system.

We should acknowledge those differences, which are critical to our social and cultural vitality. But we should also make plain that we share a common status as citizens—and potential citizens—of this country. Fundamentally, we depend on one another to see that America’s important tasks are accomplished and to ensure an orderly, peaceful experience of life.

When we vote, we should respect this variety. It is to be expected that other people, differently situated, will possess visions of the good society that contrast with our own. It is our cherished right as Americans to express our opinions, and to disagree forcefully. Still, the true test of character, both personal and social, is to accept the legitimacy of those expressions. Ultimately, what matters is that we respect one another, honor the rule of law, acknowledge the will of the majority, and move ahead in that spirit. Cast your vote for the kind of world you want all of us to live in.