I Guess They Weren’t Pillars After All

I’ve been teaching political science full time at a community college for the last 18 years. And though I still love it, it’s gotten much harder. When I started, I reveled in the idea of educating young minds about the “American experiment.” Refreshing their memories (hopefully!) about basic civics but getting into the deeper and more complicated stuff, too.

I teach American politics with a passion. And part of that passion has always come from a joyful and almost patriotic presumption that my students and I were all part of the same political culture. Though we can differ greatly when it comes to policy, Americans were all grounded in certain universal givens.

Rule of law. Separation of powers. Equal protection and due process. The sanctity of our elections. Freedom of the press.  These are the pillars of the American republic.

And all have been under unprecedented attack by Donald Trump.

More troublesome have been the Americans that have sanctioned this war on these fundamental principles. The Americans pledging more loyalty to a crass and corrupt authoritarian than the ideals that connect us. The Americans acting as enablers to this president’s historic abuse of power.

With every cry of “coup” or “witch hunt” or “hoax” the president is attempting to destroy the long-established principle of checks and balances and the independence of the justice department.

With every assault on Congress and the courts he lays waste to the bedrock American principle of separation of powers.

With every yelp doubting the legitimacy of the electoral process he scorches the foundation of our democratic government.

With every tantrum about “fake news” he delegitimizes the place that journalism holds as a bulwark against tyranny.

And still, a disturbingly large fraction of the nation looks the other way. Others even applaud such behavior. They’re energized by the president’s nonsense about a “deep state” and even think that this crusade against the Constitution is somehow “draining the swamp.”

Students sitting in my classroom next semester will run the entire range of opinion about this president. Each of them will sit there attentively as I lecture about these principles. How should I do it?

As a philosopher would? “These principles are the ideals that we should strive for?”

As an historian would?  “These principles are what the nation used to value in the past?”

As a political science professor, I used to think that we all agreed that these principles always had defined what it means to be an American. Now, I sincerely don’t know.

We use the metaphor of a “pillar” to describe things -– like the pillars holding up a building –- that are structurally necessary. These democratic principles are supposed to be pillars of our republic –- necessary components in the political structure of our nation.

By supporting this president, American citizens are making a mockery of these principles.  They are proving that to them these concepts never really mattered all that much.

Pillars? For way too many of our fellow citizens, these principles are less like pillars and more like impediments. And for those who embrace these principles with passion –- some of us are even employed to espouse them in the classroom — that is nothing short of a tragedy.