Debate as Sacred Ritual of American Life

LNP’s Address to the National History Academy’s high school summer honors program, July 6th 2022

(Fourth of July Oration) (Not as good as Frederick Douglass’s) (Dedicated to someone who makes me debate with myself)

I have often heard said, that America is an idea; a set of pristine principles, an aspirational truth, a great becoming as-yet-unrealized. I have often heard said, that America is a place, a great nation with a great heritage, a lived experience in historical time. There are good and wise men and women, left and right, young and old, who have argued for either of these conceptions—America is a nation, America is an idea—and have brought forth great arguments for either.

My own prejudiced opinion is that America is a nation that believes itself to be an idea, and that from that reality sprouts forth all the messiness and beauty, all the rancor and grandeur, all the banal simplicity and hypocritical vice and redemptive glory that has characterized American life in every decade and will mark American life for every decade yet to come. There never was a golden age and there never will be one; we’ve always been like this and always will be. That’s not to say that things don’t change, or that history’s just one darn thing after another. But it is to say, that if you want to understand America, and that impossible-to-define concept everyone has an opinion about, American identity, you have to look to the past, and be prepared to see the past in the present, the present in the past, and everything in between.

So, “a nation that believes itself to be an idea.” How does that even emerge? What does that mean for us nowadays—should we dislike ourselves, or dislike people who don’t dislike themselves? Should we blindly celebrate ourselves, and be blind to those who decline to celebrate? Don’t we need a consensus, a coherent set of general propositions or abstract truths or civic touchstones that everyone can agree are good and worth venerating, and when we’ve found such a consensus, is it not our right to insist that everyone, every American if they really are an American, agree to that consensus as an absolute minimum and an absolute baseline for participation in the American family and our glorious national community?

I, for my own part, don’t think so. We clearly do not have that now, and have not had that sort of consensus for most of living memory. We didn’t even have any deep consensus in the shocked weeks after airplanes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, or in the shocked weeks after COVID-19 case counts climbed and governments around the United States commenced lockdowns as the most prominent pandemic of our times spread all over this broad land in March 2020. And the more we look at any of the supposed “eras of good feelings” or “holidays from history” commonly remembered for their supposed unity, the more the true divisions and suppressions and dissensions and decadences of those times remind us, if we care to listen, that our divides today are really nothing new.

Somehow, America has gotten by; somehow, every great achievement and notable event in American history, has happened not by some collaborative emergence of consensus, where everyone got their input and agreed with the final product, and then pushed forward pragmatically in unison to make things happen. No, those great events and achievements have taken place amid, and thanks to, pitched and screeching battles, cast against apocalyptic times, the leaders and citizens of every moment imagining, sometimes rightly, that the very soul of democracy—the very fate of the republic—the very dream of the nation—hung always in the balance, their personal acts and convictions having a real meaning for history, their duty as citizens and as leaders and as activists and as prophets compelling them always to fight with fury for the things they believed in most.

That is, America has always been something of a process; a strange and nonsensical system whose parts, believing and practicing as they did incompatible things, have duked it out against each other in every moment in the past. Sometimes, some of those parts have come a little closer to long-term victory than others; more often they’ve settled into some more-or-less workable compromise with the other parts, and that has begun in time to look more like a consensus than it ever actually was. And in due time these compromises break down; they cease being useful to resolve the problems they once resolved, or new problems arise which prior generations simply cannot wrap their minds around. And when the façade of order and unity finally becomes too contradictory and dysfunctional to maintain, and comes collapsing down, then all that is solid melts into thin air, and the destructive and creative whirlwinds of American politics and society are let loose, and sometimes great geniuses and oftener great movements wring new light from the storm. They speak new orders into existence; by the sweat of their brows and the witness of their hearts they renew America in the times America seems lost, gone, forsaken.

You could even think of America as something of an ongoing great debate—a great debate that is not between any specific contrasting principles, nor between any specific lived realities, but is something bigger; a great debate that is always ongoing—that never ends, in which there can be no final victories, and no final defeats, where every generation renews the old flames—a never-ending great debate whose participants are every single American, every single one of the American people, whether they’re recognized as such or not, whether they know they’re debating or not, whatever the issues and the factions and the sects and the parties and the divisions of the time might be. In this debate, one’s life is an argument, one’s actions are a comprehensive speech, one’s arguments and speeches are little reminders that America—a people in motion, an unfolding revolution, a grand conversation—is always a thing in process. We have inherited things, ideas and experiences, and they have made us what we are, and we see them all around us. But we also are always building something new, pushing the project ever further into the future, practicing in our actions those great political arts which every generation of Americans has learned in its own way.

Some have written this into our political theory. When James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers, they looked at this dynamic. When Alexis de Tocqueville described the America he saw, he used this dynamic. When John Dewey tried to establish a new system of education for democracy, he looked at this dynamic, and all sober American political theorists and political historians—whatever their convictions and prejudices—have had to grapple with the fact, that the American system of politics is constantly integrating from the bottom up, building new coalitions from disparate blocks, establishing rules and orders and systems which assume and aspire to fairness and impartiality across the pluralist hearth. It is, after all, our national motto—E Pluribus, Unum—From Many, One. Every American political and social institution worth its salt—from Congress and the legislatures and the federal government in general, to the political parties, to the great civil society institutions and voluntary associations and religious movements that enrich our common life, to fan clubs and advocacies to local communities, to the university itself—operates, in some way or another, in deference to this logic, and when these institutions fail to so operate, they deservedly lose trust among large sections of the public.

So America is in a real sense a debate; every American institution is premised on debate; debate is in a deep and public sense, what we do. More than even voting, it defines the American political experience. It has been our national experience in every major conflict, crisis, division, consensus, and opportunity in our history. And it doesn’t just happen at the highest levels, at grand ethereal heights of power abstract to everyday people. It happens at every level of society, including our own, and we all participate in it in some sense—whether by engagement, understanding, anger, or avoidance, is our own choice—every day and on every issue and across our lives. Sometimes we do it badly, sometimes we do it well. But we do it, and so do all our fellow Americans, just as we always have.

And so debate in itself is something of a sacred ritual for Americans—an expression of the very best qualities of our national soul, our mutual fellowship and our habits of persuasion and our standing for things higher than ourselves in the public eye, by which we create even higher things in cooperation and competition with our fellow-citizens; a glorious moment and process where the life of American principle and nationhood and soul, intersects with the day-to-day life of every American, no matter where they’re from; where every American is given the chance to be an equal participant, with every other American, on the field of public discourse.

It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men [and women] are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.” That was Alexander Hamilton, as the American people in 1788 set out on their great debate on whether there would be a Constitution; on whether there would be a union. When we think of debates in American history, we often think back to those heady days—the Constitutional Convention and its Ratification aftermath—which, it is true, brought forth some of the best argument and oratory and theory and organizing in our history. But when we consign the greatness of debate to that hazy heroic past, a past plastered in paint in our National Archives and our lazy memory, we forget that the power of those men, is our birthright as Americans. Every generation since, every cause since, every movement since—including the generations and causes and movements that ended slavery and saved the union, that reformed and modernized our country as we entered the modern age, that fought the fascists and communists and laid the foundations of world leadership, that brought equality before the law into a deeper lived reality than Americans had ever known—every generation and cause and movement since, has had and has used that same power of debate and deliberation, that ability to organize a free democratic society for higher ends and purposes, for the purposes of their own day. Some had to spend much sweat and sometimes blood for their causes. But their power and habit and process to debate was integral to their ability to organize politically, and every party convention, legislative session, national conference, town meeting, fan club bylines-drafting session, and national student history honors program has in some real sense beat with the living spirits of 1787 and 1788 up to this present moment. They had that power, and you have that power too.

So I exhort you all, to undertake your citizenship in this strange and contradictory and innocent and hypocritical and infuriating and ennobling and wonderful and terrible and glorious American experience of ours, with an eye to the past and an eye to the future, and two hands gesticulating wildly in the grand debates you’ll win and lose, in this great never-ending debate that is the United States of America. You are at the tail end of a great tradition, pushing it forward into an uncertain future. Act worthy of your heritage; act worthy of posterity; act worthy of yourselves. The great debate will never be resolved, and will never stop, and so long as it goes on America will live; and none of us can ever really escape it. So let us go forth and debate, with the enthusiasm, the charity, the humility, and the magnanimity which, at the end of the day, are the prerequisite foundations of true eloquence.

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