The Fourth of July this year was like any other. Towns and cities across the country marked the occasion with fairs during the day and firework displays at night. People ate funnel cake, and immediately came to regret it.
Yet this year’s celebration of our democracy came as many Americans feel ever more deeply estranged from it. The resurgence of its ugliest elements helps to explain why, as exemplified by the KKK rally on July 8 in Charlottesville’s Justice Park. If the signs were more subtle before, we are now engulfed by a cacophony of warnings that the American political tradition is in steep decline, its highest office occupied by a loudmouthed demagogue, the unstated rules or norms undergirding its institutions increasingly flaunted with impunity. As a community, Charlottesville sent a strong message by meeting the KKK with the vigor that it did. Now, we should move to expedite the removal of the Lee Statue from Emancipation Park to make it resound ever more clearly.
Republics live and breathe just as much by the rule of law as they do mutually understood norms which regulate civic life. Our institutions continue to operate as they always have — hobbled, but not fully impaired by the dysfunction of our polarized politics. But something is rotten. A kind of crass behavior, improvisational performance and disregard for basic standards which elected officials would never have dared to engage in just a decade ago has become the primary feature of the current presidency. The President's supporters seem not to care, seeing these norms as the political niceties of a discredited and insulated elite who are acting in bad faith to destroy a man who spoke to their pain and discomfort, economic and cultural.
Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy help illuminate just how concerning our roiling political crisis should be to patriotic Americans. Machiavelli argues that a critical part of the dissolution of the Roman Republic was the slow creep of factionalism and the transformation of citizens into partisans. Any analogies between the United States and Ancient Rome, tired as they may be, must be appropriately qualified, but a real commonality which exists between the political developments of the two is the gradual abandonment of longstanding civic norms in favor of personal, parochial or factional interests. It is precisely this analogy that most concerned the Framers who wrote the Federalist Papers, particularly number 10.
Republicans and Democrats, right and left bear a portion of the blame for where we now stand and where we may go from here. But the Republican Party is uniquely responsible for aiding and abetting the continued survival of this presidency and by extension the most prominent factor of our national misfortune. The president’s speech in Warsaw, Poland on July 5 elicited praise from Republican officials despite its abundance of nationalist dog whistles and its omission of any critique of the governing Law and Justice Party’s campaign against the rule of law and press freedoms in Poland. To this day, even after the revelations concerning Donald Trump, Jr., Republicans see allegations of Trump campaign collusion with the Russian government as hot air as the President retains the support of eight in 10 Republicans. Such indifference to egregious ethical and legal violations that include working with a foreign adversary to subvert American democracy is a clear example of partisanship over citizenship.
Here in Charlottesville, set against the blare of the noise, we can continue to pursue more inclusive and welcoming communal spaces by moving as quickly as the law allows to remove the Lee statue from Emancipation Park. An incalculable amount of the difficulty the United States now faces in its riven body politic stems from an ongoing failure to face the consequences of slavery and the legacy of the Civil War head-on. Not only would the removal of the Lee Statue be an important act of moral symbolism in startling contrast to the national descent captured in the headlines. It would present an important step in the direction toward, in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, binding up the nation’s wounds, as we choose to emphasize a narrative of our history that sees this nation as an imperfect vessel for the hopes and dreams of humankind, lurching in fits and spurts and reversals toward something better and kinder, as we leave aside the stubborn prejudices and searing injustices to which the Lee Statue is dedicated. This we should do and yet more.
Olivier Weiss is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.