There was a notable study published the year World War Two ended that asked whether military dictatorship would be the best form of government for the United States of America. Less than one out of fifteen of those polled would support martial law. In the past five years when similar surveys question citizens, the number has risen to approximately one in five. I believe it is because so many people are afraid and desperate for order. When I talk to friends who voted for Donald Trump and others who supported Joe Biden, almost every one of them has expressed fear that there will be fighting in the streets after the election. These statistics and the mood of the nation prompt the question of why so many Americans have become disillusioned with representative democracy. Why are so many people afraid and desperate for order? I believe it is because we no longer have a sense of a collective identity. In the aftermath of World War Two, when partisanship was at an all-time low, fresh in the public’s memory was the shared accomplishment of defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Everyone knew where everyone else stood regarding the well-being of the nation, and I think we have lost sight of that value. As we stand at the threshold of the next presidential election, a new book from a former candidate, Trust by Pete Buttigieg, seeks to address the alienation Americans feel toward one another.
I should start off by noting that I do not agree with everything Buttigieg says, and certainly not with a majority of his political beliefs. Midway through the book, when discussing a bridging of the divisions in our country, “The good news is that human beings are capable of rationality, too. We are all capable of being convinced of things we’d rather not believe.” That is an unusually optimistic view of human nature, but I trust that Buttigieg is stating his actual beliefs and how he feels we can heal the country. In the book’s opening, he outlines why trust is necessary. He describes his service in Afghanistan and being stuck one day in a Kabul traffic jam. A smiling young man approached him at an intersection notorious for suicide bombings, and Buttigieg had to decide whether to draw his pistol on this possible terrorist. He decided to trust the man, and eventually the Afghan slowly backed away after he harmlessly removed a piece of his car that had detached in the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Although Buttigieg’s example was in a warzone, he outlines the debilitating economic and social effects an erosion of trust can bring to society. Here in the United States, one prominent example concerns race relations. On one side you have an ethnic minority that was historically not given a square deal by the institutions and people in power, and that minority group might have some justified grievances about society today. On the other side, you have citizens who justly abhor the rioting and destruction of public property displayed on their television sets.
By committing ourselves to a democratic scheme, we act with faith in an imperfect theory based on incomplete facts. Unless we can rely on our fellow citizens to act in an honest, peaceful manner that addresses the worst ills of society, there isn’t much of a purpose for our government. Buttigieg repeatedly points what he feels are America’s greatest challenges in 2020. The first, as I already alluded to, is race relations. The second is climate change, and this is the one subject I feel he does a disservice to himself and people of an opposing view. Buttigieg notes the modern tendency toward bipolar, black-and-white viewpoints on political issues, when in reality there are as many shades of gray as there are people. Although I believe climate change is real and a significant challenge on an international scale in the decades to come (and so does Buttigieg), the author equates climate-change skeptics with Holocaust deniers. This is a step too far.
The final issue Buttigieg concerns himself with is the current pandemic. There is no easy answer to the multitude of legal, medical, and educational challenges this virus has produced, but Buttigieg lays most of the ills at the president’s feet. Those are the lines that make the book seem more like an election pitch, rather than a sustained intellectual treatise, and I suspect this book will not be on bookstore shelves for decades to come. Still, the third and fourth chapters are a paean to the greatest moments in American history, such as the Civil War and World War Two, when Americans made a conscious commitment to their form of government and trusted the judgment of their fellow citizens. The book ends with an appendix containing Buttigieg’s address concluding his presidential campaign.
I am fortunate (or perhaps naïve) that I still have faith in the American people. Most citizens are honest, and on a nationwide scale they want their country to succeed. If Biden wins the presidency, I expect that Buttigieg will be considered for a cabinet position. This book is as good a resume as he could submit. I am glad both he and I share a trust in the capacity of the American people to do the right thing. There will always be ignorance at the political margins; violence may even occasionally flare up, but ever since John Adams surrendered the reins of power after losing the presidency to Thomas Jefferson, Americans have renewed their commitment to this republic. I hope and trust we will on the evening of November 3rd, no matter who wins.
Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at [email protected]