“Give me your tired, your poor / your huddled masses yearning to breath free.” The words from this sonnet used to make me feel proud to be part of such a country. Now they make me cringe at the inhumanity of separating children from their parents; of criminalizing those who are seeking a better life. It is the Democrats' fault, says the president. It is the law, says the attorney general.
What it is, my friends, is just the latest piece of evidence that we Americans have truly lost our way. Yes, I know that the president has rescinded the policy of family separation (the one he says he is not responsible for), but the moral bankruptcy persists.
Morality has always been the watchword of democracy. This is not morality from any particular religion, but an Enlightenment sense that people are fundamentally good and should care for each other. Because democracy is government of the people, for the people and by the people, our laws must treat us equally (the 14th Amendment term is equal protection). The laws must be regularly and fairly made and applied (the 14th Amendment calls this due process), and nobody is supposed to be left out.
Instead what we have today (and it didn’t just arrive with this administration, although this administration is as morally ambivalent as any in history), is law by executive order where no due process exists, special privilege laws are enacted for the wealthy (the latest tax revision), and truth is utterly disregarded. If we can rely on neither the law nor morality, what’s left?
We can’t do the right thing because our entire national focus is on politics — a zero sum, I win and you lose mentality. Politics was never meant to be an end in itself. It is a means to an end. Politics, or rather political parties, were originally formed to gain the number of votes and the voting discipline to get worthwhile laws passed. Political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution and our founders, including George Washington and John Adams, feared they would pollute the system. How right they were. The business of Washington is not solving problems; it is churning the political system and the amount of money that is getting churned is astounding.
I see three solutions, two of which we as citizens can do. The third, however, will take some very heavy lifting on a national scale. First, we can work locally to be good neighbors. We can help the homeless, care for refugees, and support local causes that make our communities fairer, more cohesive and more inclusive. Second, we can put our money where our mouths are by giving to the causes and the office seekers who support real goals rather than political party slogans. And third, and this is the big one, we can support public financing of all federal elections. I know it is a cliché, but it’s still true: money is the root of all evil and until we get big money out of politics, change simply will not happen.
John Frohnmayer of Corvallis was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during the first Bush administration. He ran as an independent for the U.S. Senate in 2008.