It’s Time to Get Back to Basic American Values

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The whole world seems to be falling apart. President Trump gave legitimacy to North Korea but received nothing in return. Venezuela is falling apart, while some American politicians – such as Ilhan Omar – publicly side with the dictator Maduro. Britain is about to tumble out of the EU with no back-up plan. Russia is unrestrained in its actions. India and Pakistan are threatening each other. They both have nuclear weapons.

I am relatively young, so this might not mean that much, but I have never felt so pessimistic about the order of the world. The liberal international order as I know it is crumbling quickly. I think the big problem is that narrow self-interest seems to be winning almost everywhere, regardless of leaning. Think of how political polarization has led to the prioritization of narrow political self-interest. Think of how people rarely discuss politics with those with whom they disagree. Look at the rise of isolationism and populism throughout much of the world.

We are being told daily to reassess our fundamental values. We see it from both sides. We are told by Ilhan Omar to support a dictator over a democratically-elected leader simply because of policy outcomes, even if it is contrary to our values. Meanwhile, Matt Gaetz argues that a congressperson can threaten a criminal’s family just because the man is a criminal. That is not the value of fundamental fairness that most Americans try to live by. Ocasio-Cortez wants to do away with capitalism and impose government policy on our private lives, while Rand Paul opposes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and denies the harmful legacy of racism.

There is no perfect or complete solution that fits in a short op-ed. However, one thing is clear: we need to reaffirm our fundamental values. 

Meanwhile, there is great income equality and other forms of socio-economic injustice in this country. However, some people take this very real threat to core American values too far. The complete rejection of capitalism by Senator Sanders and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez is just not who we are as Americans. They both want a system of government where our lives are even more dependent on government than it currently is, and they set no limits on the increase in government control on our lives. At the same time, income inequality and socio-economic justice are real and in our fight for social justice, which I would argue in an American value, we must reject right-wing libertarianism, the ideology of the rich and powerful.

When it comes to sensitive issues, like abortion, we need to talk to people with whom we disagree. There is more common ground on them than we think. We need to expose the extremists on both sides of complex issues, and we must refuse to simplify difficult and important issues down to slogans. The rise of pro-late-term abortion ideology is frightening and disheartening, but so is the lack of many in the pro-life movement to understand how difficult most women find the abortion process to be.

The fundamental issue is that we have forgotten who we are as a country and the need to stand with one another (at least some of the time). We hear about different communities – such as Italian-Americans, people of color, or LGBTQ folks – who are all very important and deserve to stand united. But we must not forget the geographic communities that we live in: from municipalities and counties to states and the nation as a whole.

Here are my ideas for solutions on getting back to American values. Political polarization is the chief culprit of the debasement of American values. Political polarization incentivizes the right to get more right-wing and the left to get more left-wing, while making the two parties more based on a single ideology than they traditionally have been. We need to combat political polarization.

One way of doing this is to open up the primary system. Right now, we are stuck in a two-party system. Want something different? We must make the two parties more amenable to currently-excluded opinions. In most districts, it feels that primary voters only have choices that are far left or far right.

By allowing anyone to vote in the primary – regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof – it allows them to have a voice at the most critical level of voting. In my state of New Jersey, primary voting is by and large more crucial than general election voting. As a blue state, we almost always swing to Democrats, but you can’t ignore the areas are very Republican. New Jersey is much more purple than you’d think. 

The argument against open primaries is that people will try to sabotage the other party. However, sometimes you just agree with the person on the other side. How can we break out of our hyper-partisan mindset if we doubt anyone that changes their mind or adjusts their worldview?

Another way to fight political polarization is for states to pass campaign finance reform laws that violate Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United. The pro-life movement has been known to do this. 

Big interest groups, on both sides of the ideological spectrum, have made it hard for anyone else to get their voices heard. As a result, big corporations and non-for-profit organizations have more power than they should; the NRA and Planned Parenthood can give unlimited donations to Super PACs. This leads to extreme policies, like the extremely pro-abortion policies in New York and pro-gun policies in Kentucky. 

We can only stand up for American values by using what I call “absolute value” thinking. Absolute value is the concept in math where you look at the value of a number (both positive or negative). In terms of politics, realize that the NRA on the right and Planned Parenthood on the left are similar in terms of absolute value. They both push extreme policies and use the broken campaign finance system to drive the political polarization process. We can say something similar about Roe and Buckley. Often a partisan with support one of the decisions and not the other, but their far-leaning policies make them similar birds of a feather. 

Both decisions are Supreme Court precedents from the 1970s that mandate controversial policies. They are both deeply embedded into our common law tradition, and to undermine one without the other would be the actions of a partisan-activist justice. As a people, we need to stop thinking based on what benefits “our side” and think in terms of what is best for our institutions. Either rejecting deep precedents willy-nilly or valuing them as more sacred than any other political institutions would be silly. 

Instead, we have to think about how to defeat political polarization. When we do that, we can finally put American values over the interests of the radical right or the radical left. When that happens, we will not have to fear the power of extremists and instead vote with our hearts.