Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?
Charles de Gaulle’s plaintive question — “How does one govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” — is well considered in this time.
History is painted heavy with the woeful tales of shattered nations. Yet while we dramatize war and destruction, social upheaval, and economic downfall, much less do we romanticize the quiet, constant work of those who attempt to rebuild countries in ruin. And rarely do we celebrate the courage of the hard, often unpopular choices forced on them.
Gerald Ford’s presidency and 1976 re-election bid suffered morbidly from his controversial pardon of the disgraced Nixon. The victorious Carter opened his inaugural speech with a pardon of his own, saying to Ford before the whole world, “On behalf of all the American people, we thank you for healing the land.” In so doing, he credited Ford for beginning that process, and pledged to carry it forward.
As America enters a new era of hope in the looming wake of what many are calling the most destructive presidential administration in our history, we must ready ourselves for the challenge of restoring unity of vision and purpose to a deeply fractured society. Both candidates emphasized this on election night:
McCain: “I urge all Americans…to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans.”
Obama: “In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House, a party founded on the values of self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity. Those are values that we all share.”
Left out of these transcripts are the responce of the crowds in attendance. Many listening to McCain’s concession speech loudly booed and derided Obama and the Democrats, and even, it seemed, McCain’s own good grace toward his opponents. For a man who has spent years being derided and abused by his own party, it must have been painful indeed to plead for simple courtesy from his own supporters. Some of Obama’s supporters also failed to flatter him, and we may only imagine what might have transpired in the aftermath of his loss.
Many people seem unable to accept that there are victors and losers in every contest, yet we all share the consequences no matter who wins. A democracy governs through debate and compromise, not concensus, which is only necessary. Robert Heinlein said, more than three people can’t agree on when to have lunch. How could a nation of millions maintain itself in inflexibility and intolerance?
Yet just under the glow of an historic triumph, intolerace prevailed across a divided land, as four states passed antigay measures, including three marriage bans. That support ran strong among populations with their own history of marginalisation is disheartening. We would do well to consider that were civil rights routinely subjected to Alexis de Toqueville’s “tyranny of the majority,” our history would be very different indeed.
In the aftermath of 9/11 — an event that galvanized American determination, but also blinded us to reason — the familiar heartswelling motto, United We Stand, emblazoned homes, vehicles, and business across the land. But forgotten in that jingoistic fever, then and now, is its complementary caution, Divided We Fall.
The social and political divisions of our nation and society run long and deep, and will not be healed overnight. “The road ahead will be long,” Obama warns. “Our climb will be steep. … There will be setbacks and false starts.” He could harly overstate it. As we go forward into an exciting and unknown future, we must remind ourselves at every turn that our strength in history has been our unity, over our differences, and our sharing of the burdens and benefits of governance, over our narrow insistence that merely because we desire it, we should expect to get our way, and that others must agree.
In this, the challenge is not just for Democrats to mend differences between themselves and Republicans, but, as disturbingly illustrated by McCain’s hecklers, the refusal of some to respect those who think, feel, and live differently, or to accept them as fellow citizens with equal rights.
So here’s wishing good luck to the new president when he takes office in two and a half months, and good wishes and thanks also to his noble and gracious opponent, hope and sympathy for both their supporters, and mercy and grace to us all as we attempt to clean up the aftermath, pursue our shared path forward, and seek to heal the land.