Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote and stars in the Broadway musical Hamilton, based on Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton (2004). An interviewer asked Miranda what impact working on the show had on his concept of America. Miranda replied, “It’s been a comfort to me. When I read about all of the political craziness back then, I realize things aren’t any worse today.”
I love what Miranda said, because I have the same reaction when I read U.S. history. In so many ways, things are better now – political disagreements are less likely to end with somebody being caned, or covered in boiling tar. Still, you hear it all the time: “The world is going to hell.” “The country is in a downward spiral.” “Make America Great Again.”
Pronouncements like these are spouted with the assumption that they are irreducible facts, accepted by everyone. Bill Gates wrote in 2014, “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been…You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated, but in fact, Melinda and I are struck by how many people think the world is getting worse.”
By almost any measure… Politicians like to ask, “are you better off now than you used to be,” as if, of course, any negative change in circumstance is some politician’s fault, to be solved by another politician. When I think about it, my life has improved under both conservative and liberal leadership. But can I actually credit political leadership for my circumstance, positive or negative?
Certainly, there are issues that get me fired up. Mostly, these are things that affect people I know. Healthcare, LGBTQIA issues, abortion, racial/gender/economic disparity. I’ve been known to “shout from the sidelines” about these from time to time, and once in a while somebody will unfriend me on social media, or refuse to shake my hand in church. (Which beats getting tarred or caned, for sure.) None of my hot-button issues is yet where I’d like to see them (for the sake of my family and friends, and others I empathize with) but I see steady progress that outpaces the setbacks, just as I do in my own life.
I’ve written that my own definition of “conservative” is someone who’s had it pretty good and wants to keep that going. “Liberal” is someone who thinks nobody wins unless everybody does. Obviously, it’s difficult to write a definition that doesn’t betray bias. My friend Scott Shafer came close: “…both sides can charitably be understood as desiring the best for society as a whole — either by vigorously defending those institutions that benefit us all, or by seeking to change those institutions that perpetuate injustice.” I remember being frustrated during that exchange, but what emerged was better than what we’d started with.
That’s the tension we live with. It actually works pretty well, for the most part. Both sides scream, then we compromise to benefit the whole. Bill Clinton said that after serving two terms as President, he left office not frustrated, but with greater faith in the workings of our system. It’s supposed to be hard, he said. We are not and never have been a perfect union, but we’re moving in the right direction.