The United States is deeply imperfect. But the country and the world will pay a steep price if we allow its flaws to blind us to its achievements and its potential.
Here are a few of the maxims that describe the current political moment in the United States:
Compromise is weakness.
Flawed good is the same as evil.
The exceptions are more important than the rule.
Telling the whole story is so important that it is worth falsifying the plot.
The sins of the ideologically righteous matter not so long as we hunt for the sins of the wicked.
Under cover of these maxims, the fight against oppression is being hijacked by ideologues whose agenda is power, not justice. The extremes on both sides are uniting to fight the center. And an obsession with American greatness is obscuring the need for American goodness.
The current intellectual moment poses a serious threat to both freedom and justice. The American experiment has always been a mixture of mythology and achievement. It is good and necessary to keep pointing out the country’s flaws. But if we become incapable of recognizing its accomplishments and its potential, we risk throwing away the principles that make America as essential a model for the world as it has ever been.
America, the Adaptable
America’s real triumph has been its ability to adapt and change over the course of nearly two and a half centuries. The Founding Fathers did not come down from Mount Vernon holding the Constitution on stone tablets. They realized that they were fallible, and that their successors would be too. So they created an ingenious system to be run by imperfect human beings, not by an infallible god or monarch.
When they invented the constitutional republic from whole cloth, the Founders did something unprecedented: They created checks and balances, wrote the opposition into the government, and meticulously divided its powers and responsibilities. Then they complemented the Constitution with the Bill of Rights, a document that is all the more remarkable for focusing not on what the government is obliged to do for its citizens, but on what it may not do to its citizens.
Thus was launched the greatest nation on Earth.
From the very beginning, that nation was rife with injustices and contradictions—foremost among them the enslavement of millions and the bloody Civil War that set them free. But as the false idols of the Confederacy finally fall, let us not forget that those who fought to destroy it were also Americans. Let us remember the “willed moral progress” brought about by the slaves and free Blacks who would accept no compromise, only total emancipation. Together, they helped America do away with the hypocrisy of the Founders, bringing their noble words a giant leap closer to reality.
That is the American way. Lurching forward, always in the belief that better is possible because it has proven true for so long. And that is also the reason why millions of immigrants continue to flock to the country: Even as many of those who were born here adopt a mercilessly pessimistic attitude towards their own country, most immigrants continue to believe in the dream of 1776, the dream of the freedom to pursue yet more dreams.
The Danger of False Equivalence
The free world has always contained a large number of people who like to engage in the game of whataboutism. But it is only in the last few years that the drawing of false moral equivalencies has started to dominate the mainstream.
The far right is especially guilty of this. Neo-fascists talk about cultural and ethnic purity, not concentration camps. Trump and other defenders of the Confederacy talk about history and heritage, not slavery and treason. Their ends, not just their techniques, are malign—and they barely try to hide it. When you have power, you don’t feel the need to disguise your intentions.
On the left, the charge is coming in the name of the marginalized and the forgotten, from those who have never had the chance to inscribe their stories in the history books since they have never counted among the winners. After going unheard for so long, they understandably aren’t very concerned that others may be silenced by their fury. But even where history is in serious need of correction, the facts must still matter; otherwise, as George Orwell warned, our memory of the past will forever be determined by the forces that happen to prevail at any one moment.
Take the case of Thomas Jefferson. He is guilty of sins and failings we should make no effort to hide. But he was also one of the key inventors of the universal principles of liberty, helping to write the Declaration of Independence, the French Rights of Man, and the Virginia Statute (which formed the basis of our cherished First Amendment). We should honor Jefferson, like many others to whom we owe so much, despite his flaws.
This is not merely about the statues that some zealots propose to take down. Denunciations of Jefferson the man can quickly morph into disdain for the principles of freedom from which he brought a new nation to life. The jump from attacking the man to discrediting his works may be smaller than meets the eye.
The Founders were imperfect, as was the government they created, and as are all of us. But the system was designed to be improved upon by future generations. To do so is now our duty.
Beyond the Shining Seas
A similarly ambivalent argument applies to America’s place in the world. We must acknowledge the serious mistakes the free world—especially America as its putative flagbearer—has made along the road to deeper and broader liberalism. But that is no reason to pretend that America is morally equivalent to the evil forces that have always opposed those gains, and now seek to roll them back.
(I do not use the word “evil” lightly. There is no absolute good, for decent institutions always contain flaws, and evolve in a laborious process of trial and error. But evil—the disregard for the values of human life and individual freedom—is often clear and present. Where it is appropriate, we should not be afraid to use the term.)
If Americans don’t care about democracy and rights in the rest of the world, they won’t care much about those things at home, either. Conversely, if they no longer take pride in being American, what can the values of the American Revolution mean to the rest of the world?
History has always necessitated taking sides, something that requires defining what those sides are, however uncomfortable that makes us. That is another task now facing us: Trump’s autocratic rhetoric and his open adoration of dictators have stirred a renewed appreciation for democracies, and the alliance between them, among many Europeans and Americans. We cannot squander this opportunity, as I’m afraid these sentiments may not outlast Trump for long.
The best way to promote the advantages of liberalism and democracy is to clean up your own house and lead by example. But that alone is not enough. The open society we cherish has powerful enemies who are only encouraged by America’s retreat from the world—a retreat that began well before Trump started openly fawning over dictators. Millions around the world still hold the United States up as a beacon of hope and freedom, as my compatriots and I once did from behind the Iron Curtain.
We envied Americans because they had the power to make their lives and their country better, something entirely out of our grasp. Today, they are doing it again—in the streets and soon, I’m confident, at the ballot box. America should use that momentum to reassure the world that its fight for democracy and justice does not stop at the border.
Say What Is Right, Not Just What Is Wrong, With America
It’s not surprising that Trump, the talisman of the far-right, epitomizes the moral equivalence—“Well, you think our country is so innocent?”—that has, for decades, been a hallmark of the far-left. As horseshoe theory predicts, the extremes are often united in their opposition to the foundations of a free society. Much as they dislike each other, their real enemy is the moderate majority that, should it stand up for its values, can relegate them to the fringes, where they belong.
We have to be able to say what is right to fight effectively against what is wrong, and what is right about America is that it strives to adapt and improve in the pursuit of freedom and justice. If we do not believe that we are fighting for a better future, apathy will inevitably set in.
In 1774, Jefferson wrote that “the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.” Since politicians, as a class, are routinely dismissed as dishonest, the importance of this statement has often been underestimated. But the graft of Warren Harding, the criminal machinations of Richard Nixon, and the moral failings of Bill Clinton all pale in comparison to the ceaseless mendacity of Donald Trump’s White House.
Under these conditions, it is easy to see why many Americans are losing patience. Too often, their leaders and institutions have betrayed their trust. When integrity cannot be taken for granted, the entire edifice of democracy begins to wobble. And when the system fails the people, the people understandably take to the streets. The question now is whether they will channel their energies into repairing the system by forcing a stagnant political system to make urgently needed changes—or whether they prefer to tear it all down.
To regain their trust, and lessen the dangerous appeal of nihilism, we must admit that American democracy now faces a deep crisis of integrity. The existing norms and regulations weren’t enough to rein in Donald Trump. Nor will they, most likely, be enough to contain the threat of Trumpism that will persist even if the president loses to Joe Biden in November.
Any effective action to reinfuse the American government with the art of being honest requires that the country deal with its demons, old and new. American lawmakers must stand up against the ingrained habits of lobbying and rent-seeking that have long dominated how politics is done in Washington. They must also get serious about confronting new threats like foreign-sponsored election hacking, dark money laundering and the exploitation of social media data.
But momentous though these tasks may now seem, we will be able to carry them out if we trust in America’s ability to adapt and thrive. Old values can deal with new threats. We must acknowledge the failures and patch the holes. We must center the truth in politics, media and public discourse. We must put caring for our fellow citizens ahead of the right not to.
Freedom From Fear
I look around my new home in the free world, deeply uncertain of the future.
Free speech is taken for granted or dismissed as an outmoded value. State censorship isn’t my biggest concern—despite Trump’s disgusting characterization of the press as an “enemy of the people,” one of Lenin’s favourite phases, you can still change the channel or subscribe to a newspaper that criticizes the president with abandon. But I’m a lot less sanguine about the health of public debate.
Largely driven by social media, that virtual embodiment of the mob, there has been a rush to expand the range of unacceptable opinion. A misplaced word won’t result in the KGB knocking on your door at midnight. But Twitter never sleeps.
The danger of a chilling effect on debate is why I was happy to sign the recent open letter in support of free speech and open debate. My name joined those of 150 authors and academics from the left and the right—including some with whom I would scarcely agree on any other major issue. Since being for free speech is a little like being against crime, the letter should hardly have been controversial; and yet it produced a veritable firestorm of hostility, largely validating its main thesis.
Ideas are made stronger by open competition, and from its adversarial system of government to Silicon Valley, no country has made better use of this than America. If people hesitate to speak because they might be accused of being impure and unworthy, and are afraid of losing their standing or even their employment, then the stagnation of our political institutions will soon find an echo in the intellectual and moral stagnation of our society.
Some ideas merit exclusion from civilized debate. I have no tolerance for intolerance of any kind, and a free society must protect itself from those who would destroy it from within or without. It is well and good for reprehensible ideas to be pilloried. But let us cancel the ideas, not the people who express them.
For fear is the greatest censor of all. And for America to overcome the many challenges that face it, and to play the role it was born to play, at home and abroad, Americans will have to enjoy both freedom of speech and freedom from fear.
Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative and the Human Rights Foundation. His latest books are Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped and Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins. He is a member of Persuasion’s Board of Advisors.
I am struck with the importance of judging our founders and history by the standards of their times. After all, any historical figure has failed in grievous ways we know better now. And we shall fail in grievous ways our descendants will know better as well. But we must not imagine ourselves more virtuous than our ancestors, nor less virtuous than our descendants, due to being raised in a time that had access to the moral reasoning of today and neither more nor less.
What we must celebrate are those who helped move our world forward. Who dared dream of rights and systems of government then unspoken (who falls in such category is by inevitability clearer in hindsight than present). This standard is not always exculpatory. Wilson was a bigoted scoundrel by the standards of his own time. Figures like Jackson and maybe even Jefferson may fall short as well but it is the right way to view persons and how they helped shape the world.
Why can we not appeal to the highest possible moral standards, those known today or imagined for tomorrow? Because that year 1 mentality treats us as if we are morally sounder in some more meaningful way and fails to recognize that our morality is built on that slow ascent. Without the building blocks, freely imagining morals confident in our wisdom and detached from our history, we tend to imagine atrocity time and time again.
Heroes are never perfect. They're human beings, trapped (as we all are) in the folly and wickedness of their own times. What makes them heroes is that, in spite of that, they are able to see past the wretchedness of their moment, and take the first courageous steps toward something better.
They will never entirely transcend it; that's usually left for later generations. But they build the gates through which those later generations will march toward progress.
The fact that they are able reach out over their own personal limitations to do this makes them more admirable, not less. Their achievements so remarkable precisely because they were so flawed -- but did bold things anyway.