A Democrat looks at what his party can’t see
As a lifelong man of the Left who very much wants the Democratic Party to succeed, I regret to report this: The Democrats and the Democratic brand are in deep trouble. That should have been obvious when Democrats underperformed in the 2020 election, turning what they and most observers expected to be a blue wave into more of a ripple. They lost House seats and performed poorly in state legislative elections. And their support among non-white voters, especially Hispanics, declined substantially.
Still, they did win the presidency, which led many to miss the clear market signals this underperformance was sending. That tendency was strengthened by the Democrats’ improbable victories in the two Senate runoffs in Georgia, which gave them full control of the federal government, albeit by the very narrowest of margins.
At the same time, Trump’s refusal to concede the election — his bizarre behavior in that regard probably contributed to the GOP defeats in the Georgia runoffs — and his encouragement of rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6 led many Democrats to assume that the Republican brand would be so damaged by association that the Democratic brand would shine by comparison. And yet, two years later, the Democrats are in brutal shape.
Biden’s approval rating is in the low 40s, only a little above where Trump’s was at the same point in his presidential term, which of course was the precursor to the GOP’s drubbing in the 2018 election. Biden has been doing especially poorly among working-class and Hispanic voters. His approval ratings on specific issues tend to be lower, in the high 30s on the economy and in the low 30s on hot-button issues such as immigration and crime. Off-year and special elections since 2020 have indicated a strongly pro-Republican electoral environment, and Democrats currently trail Republicans in the generic congressional ballot for 2022. It now seems likely that Democrats will, at minimum, lose control of the House this November and quite possibly suffer a wave election up and down the ballot.
Most Democrats would prefer to believe that the current dismal situation merely reflects some bad luck. The Delta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus did undercut Biden’s plans for returning the country to normal, interacting with supply-chain difficulties to produce an inflation spike that angered consumers, but that is not the whole picture. Democrats have failed to develop a party brand capable of unifying a dominant majority of Americans behind their political project. Indeed, the current Democratic brand suffers from several deficiencies that make it somewhere between uncompelling and toxic to many American voters who might otherwise be the party’s allies. I locate these deficiencies in three key areas: culture, economics, and patriotism.
Culture. The cultural Left has managed to associate the Democratic Party with a series of views — on crime, immigration, policing, free speech, and, of course, race and gender — that are far from those of the median voter. That’s a success for the cultural Left but an electoral liability for the Democratic Party. From time to time, Democratic politicians, like Biden in his State of the Union address on March 1, try to dissociate themselves from unpopular ideas such as defunding the police, but the cultural Left within the party is still more deferred to than opposed or ignored. Their voices are amplified by Democratic-leaning media and nonprofits, as well as by party officials and activists. Increasingly, a party’s national brand defines state and even local electoral contests, and Democratic candidates across the ballot have a very hard time shaking the party’s cultural-Left associations.
To understand this state of affairs, we must understand the trajectory of the American Left in the 21st century. It is now out of touch with its working-class roots and dominated by college-educated professionals, typically younger people in big metropolitan areas and university towns. They fill the ranks of media, nonprofits, advocacy groups, and foundations and are overrepresented in the infrastructure of the Democratic Party. They speak their own language and highlight the issues that most animate their commitments to “social justice.”
Those commitments are increasingly driven by identity politics, which originated in the 1960s movements that sought to eliminate discrimination against, and establish equal treatment of, women and racial and sexual minorities. Gradually, the focus has mutated. Advocates now attempt to impose a narrow worldview, emphasizing the need to oppose multiple, intersecting levels of oppression (“intersectionality”) based on group identification. In place of promoting universal rights and principles — the traditional remit of the Left — advocates now police others on the left, including those within the Democratic Party, pressuring them to use an arcane vocabulary for speaking about purportedly oppressed groups and to prohibit logical, evidence-based discourse by which the assertions of those who claim to speak on behalf of minorities and other demographic groups could be evaluated.
Is America really a “white supremacist” society? What does “structural racism” mean, and does it explain all the socioeconomic problems of non-whites? Is anyone who raises questions about immigration levels a racist? Is constant specification of personal pronouns necessary and something the Left should seek to popularize? Are trans women the same as biological women? Are those who ask the question simply “haters” who should be expelled from the left coalition? This list could go on. Politically predetermined answers to the questions are simply to be embraced by Democratic progressives, in the interest of “social justice.”
The Democrats have paid a considerable price for their militant identity politics, which lends the impression that the party is distracted by, or even focused on, issues of little relevance to most voters’ lives. Worse, the focus has led many working-class voters to believe that, unless they subscribe to the progressive worldview and speak its language, they will be condemned as reactionary, intolerant, and racist by those who purport to represent their interests. To some extent these voters are right: They are looked down upon by substantial segments — typically younger, well educated, and metropolitan — of the Democratic Party. An emerging rupture in the Democratic Party’s coalition along lines of education and region is clear.
This rupture was made deeper by the election of Donald Trump in 2016. On the left, the dominant interpretation of white working-class support for Trump was that it reflected racism and xenophobia: As America became more multicultural and multiracial, working-class whites didn’t like their alleged loss of status and privilege. This interpretation was odd, since Democratic progressives had just spent many decades sternly denouncing the American neoliberal economic model, arguing that it was ruining the lives and communities of all working people.
The Trump years further deepened the influence of identity politics on the Democratic Party, particularly in the wake of the nationwide protest movement following the murder of George Floyd. That left its stamp on the 2020 edition of the Democratic Party, notwithstanding their old-school standard-bearer, Joe Biden.
It has also left its stamp on how Democrats have handled difficult cultural issues since the election. They have fallen prey to what I have termed the “Fox News fallacy” — the idea that, if Fox News and the like are criticizing the Democrats on an issue, the criticism must be unsound and the disputed policy should be defended at all costs. That reflex has not served the Democrats well as Biden’s term has evolved.
Start with crime. Initially dismissed as simply an artifact of the Covid shutdown and as vastly exaggerated by conservative media, the rise in violent crime is clear, and voters are highly concerned about it. They include black and Hispanic voters, as indicated by polling data and confirmed by Eric Adams’s base of support in the New York mayoral contest. No wonder more Democratic politicians are running as fast as they can away from any hint of “defund the police,” the slogan that, beloved of the activist Left, was put on the ballot in Minneapolis . . . and soundly defeated, especially by black voters. According to a recent poll from Pew Research, black and Hispanic Democrats are significantly more likely than white Democrats to favor more police funding in their area.
Despite Biden’s assertion in his recent State of the Union address that funding the police is a good idea (followed by his new budget proposal), Democrats still seem far from “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” the felicitous slogan of former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair. Fox News may exaggerate, but voters do want law and order — carried out fairly and humanely, but law and order just the same. Democrats — with some exceptions, including Eric Adams — are still reluctant to emphasize their commitment to cracking down on crime and criminals. It is no surprise, then, that Republicans, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, are favored over Democrats on the crime issue by 20 points.
Another example of the Fox News fallacy can be seen in the immigration issue. The Biden administration initially insisted that the surge at the border would subside as the hot-weather season arrived. Most Democrats echoed that line, invoking the idea that the issue was mostly a Fox News talking point.
Not so. It is now apparent that the perceived liberalization of the border regime under the Biden administration did encourage more migrants to try their luck at the border. An astonishing 1.7 million illegal crossings at the southern border were recorded in the 2021 fiscal year, the highest total since at least 1960, when the government first started keeping track. To stem the tide, the administration has scrambled to deploy whatever tools it has at its disposal, including some left over from the Trump administration. That upset immigration advocates, who staged a (virtual) walkout on top Biden officials in late 2021 to protest the policies.
These and other pressures, as well as the desire not to agree with Fox, have led most Democratic politicians to treat the topic of border security gingerly (though Biden in the State of the Union address did at least allude to the need to “secure the border”). As a result, there is no clear Democratic plan for an immigration system that would both permit reasonable levels of legal immigration and provide the border security necessary to stop illegal entry.
Voters have noticed. In the Wall Street Journal poll previously cited, Republicans are favored over Democrats by 26 points on border security. And Biden, as noted earlier, has abysmal approval ratings on the immigration issue, typically in the low 30s.
Democrats would do well to remember that public-opinion polling over the years has consistently shown overwhelming majorities in favor of more spending and emphasis on border security.
Finally, consider critical race theory, or CRT, a particularly flagrant example of the Fox News fallacy. Democrats refuse to admit that there might be a problem here. Originating in academic legal theory, “critical race theory” has been used as shorthand by the Right, who have made it a catch-all term for the intrusion of race essentialism into teacher training, school curricula, and the like. The standard Democratic comeback to criticism about CRT in the schools is to say that any voters, including parents, who worry about CRT are manipulated by right-wing media into opposing proper teaching about the history of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and so on.
Voters’ worries about CRT cannot be bludgeoned away so easily. Parents are far more worried that their child is taught — no matter the name of the theory — to see everything through a racial lens than they are concerned that she is learning about historical instances and practices of racism.
This issue has become caught up in general dissatisfaction with how Democrats have handled schooling issues during the pandemic. In Virginia, voters already upset about parental burdens and academic deficits from extended school closures became additionally concerned that an emerging focus on “social justice” pedagogy and policies was detracting from instruction in traditional academic subjects.
“Many swing voters knew, when pushed by more-liberal members of the group, that CRT wasn’t taught in Virginia schools,” according to the Democratic firm ALG Research, in a memo on focus groups with Biden–Youngkin voters in suburban Virginia:
But at the same time, they felt like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history, and other things. They absolutely want their kids to hear the good and the bad of American history, [but] at the same time they are worried that racial and cultural issues are taking over the state’s curricula. We should expect this backlash to continue, especially as it plays into another way where parents and communities feel like they are losing control over their schools in addition to the basics of even being able to decide if they’re open or not.
Again, these issues cannot be waved away simply by dismissing complaining parents as racists or dupes of Fox News. This is particularly the case for Asian parents. It would be difficult to overestimate how important education is to Asian voters, who see it as the key to upward mobility — a tool that even the poorest Asian parents can take advantage of. But Democrats are seen to be anti-meritocratic and opposed to standardized tests, test-in elite schools, and programs for the gifted and talented — areas where Asian children have excelled.
Because of its record on these and other cultural issues, the party’s — or, at least, Biden’s — attempt to rebrand Democrats as unifying, speaking for Americans across divisions of race and class, has so far failed. Voters are not sure Democrats can look beyond identity politics to ensure public safety, secure borders, high-quality nonideological education, and economic progress for all Americans.
The Democrats find themselves weighed down by those whose tendency is to emphasize the identity-politics angle of virtually every issue. Decisive action that might lead to a rebranding is immediately undercut by a torrent of criticism (Biden is getting some of this right now) or simply never proposed.
Nevertheless, Biden and the Democrats must persist in their efforts to rebrand. The alternative would be to cede to Republicans a culture-war advantage that would mean not just probable defeat in 2022 but the continued failure of Democratic efforts to forge a clear majority coalition for years to come.
One obvious issue on which to rebrand is crime. Democrats should build on Biden’s recent, tentative steps in this direction.
Consider that Democrats are associated with a wave of progressive public prosecutors who seem quite hesitant about keeping criminals off the street, even as major cities suffer a spike in murder, carjackings, and other violent crimes. This is twinned to a climate, of tolerance and non-prosecution for lesser crimes, that is degrading the quality of life in many cities under Democratic control.
This has got to stop. Weakness on crime not only damages the Democrats’ brand but harms some of their most vulnerable constituents.
“It’s time the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end,” London Breed, the Democratic mayor of San Francisco, said in December. “And it comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies, and less tolerant of all the bullsh** that has destroyed our city.”
Strong words. But Breed — and Adams — are on to something. Normie voters hate crime and want something done about it. They’re not impressed by talk about the availability of guns when it fails to include talk about enforcing the law against criminals who use the guns.
Biden (or some other leading Democrat) could say something like this, as recommended by the excellent Charlie Sykes at The Bulwark: “We must continue the fight for social justice, but it should not come at the price of public safety. In some of our biggest cities we have folks who think that we shouldn’t put criminals in jail or downplay the dangers of violent crime. They are wrong. We have to protect our families and our neighborhoods.”
And then name some names. Maybe it’s not time for a “Sister Souljah moment.” But how about a Chesa Boudin moment? I bet London Breed would have your back.
Economics. Just what is the Democrats’ plan for the economy? Right now, it seems to boil down to their legislative accomplishments, past and future, which will result in a “better” economy. Voters, however, are foggy about what those legislative accomplishments consist of and are not sure the economy has landed in a better place yet.
Neither are they sure where the economy is supposed to be going under the Democrats’ watch. In that sense, voters may be on to something when they see Democrats as preoccupied with social issues. Parties face an opportunity cost when allocating their limited attention and resources; Democrats have not had an obvious and unifying laser-like focus on economic growth and the creation of good jobs.
To the extent that Democrats have an overarching economic story, it is that a dramatic expansion of the social safety net and a rapid move to a clean-energy economy will result in strong growth and an abundance of good jobs, someday. But the story is muddled. It’s not getting through.
A standard Democratic take on that problem is that their economic ideas and accomplishments are great but haven’t been properly communicated. I think the problem runs far deeper. Consider the debacle around the Build Back Better bill.
That was the multitrillion-dollar bill that Democrats were, until recently, trying to maneuver through Congress. Democrats talked about the care economy, a Green New Deal, and other big ideas associated with Build Back Better, but what they added up to was not clear. Would the bill have created a more dynamic American capitalism, one capable of lifting up broad segments of the country that had been left behind? Build Back Better appeared to be a means of funneling money to a wide variety of Democratic priorities. Some of the spending would have supported useful expansions of the notably stingy American welfare system, and some of it would have supported useful public investments not provided for in the infrastructure bill, particularly in clean energy.
None of that, though, would have led to more productivity, higher growth, and an American economy less unequal across regions.
It is a mistake to lose sight of the need for faster growth. Growth, particularly productivity growth, is what drives rising living standards over time, and Democrats presumably stand for the fastest possible rise in living standards. Faster growth also makes the achievement of Democrats’ other goals easier. Hard economic times typically generate pessimism about the future, not broad support for more democracy and social justice. In contrast, when the economy is expanding and living standards are steadily rising for most people, they see better opportunities for themselves and are more inclined toward generosity, tolerance, and collective advancement.
Yet much of the Democratic Left still regards with suspicion the goal of more and faster economic growth, preferring to focus on the unfairness of the current distribution of wealth. This reflects not just a laudable concern to reduce inequality but also a feeling that the fruits of growth are poisoned, encouraging unhealthy consumerist lifestyles and, worse, causing the climate crisis. The latter view has, on the left, led to the vogue for the idea of “degrowth.”
Given such views, it is not surprising that growth does not rank high on the Democratic Left’s list of economic objectives. We saw that in the endless debate around Build Back Better, which was driven by the House’s Progressive Caucus. Almost none of the debate was about how well the bill, at whatever level of funding and with whatever programmatic commitments, would promote growth. That was dismissed as something only conservatives would care about.
Closely related to Democrats’ relative indifference to economic growth is their lack of optimism that a rapid advance and application of technology can produce an abundant future. More common is fear that a dystopian future might await us thanks to AI and other technologies. This is odd, given that almost everything ordinary people like about the modern world, including relatively high living standards, is traceable to technological advances and the knowledge embedded in them. From smartphones, flat-screen TVs, and the Internet to air and auto travel to central heating and air-conditioning to the medical devices and drugs that cure disease and extend life to electric lights and the mundane flush toilet, technology has dramatically transformed people’s lives for the better. It is difficult to argue that the average person today is not far, far better off than her counterpart in the past. “The good old days were old but not good,” as the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it.
Doesn’t the Left want to make people happy? One has to wonder. They show more interest in figuring out what people should stop doing and consuming than in figuring out how people can have more to do and consume. They rarely discuss the idea of abundance, except to disparage it.
These attitudes help explain why the Democratic Left does not tend to feature technological advance prominently in its policy portfolio. The Biden administration did manage to get the U.S. Competitiveness and Innovation Act through the Senate, and the closely related America COMPETES Act through the House (the two bills have yet to be reconciled into one), but they would provide far less funding and probably have far less impact on scientific innovation than the originally proposed bill, the Endless Frontier Act. Nobody on the left seems to be particularly exercised about this step down — or even to be in much of a hurry to reconcile the two current bills.
If there is to be an abundant clean-energy future, not a degrowth one, it will depend on our ability to develop energy technologies beyond wind and solar. The same could be said about a wide range of other technological challenges that could underpin a future of abundance: AI and machine learning, CRISPR and mRNA biotechnology, advanced robotics and the Internet of things.
That’s why it’s inadequate for Democrats to focus narrowly on a clean-energy, Green New Deal–type future. Make no mistake: What Americans want is an abundant future, not just a green one. For better or worse, combating climate change does not rank high on voters’ priority list (14th in a recent Pew Research poll). Investment in clean-energy technologies needs to be embedded in a broader “abundance agenda” (to use Derek Thompson’s phrase) that drives up the supply of innovation and can deliver not just the avoidance of disaster but a better life for all.
Patriotism. Today’s Democrats have difficulty embracing patriotism and weaving it into their political brand. “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America,” Bill Clinton said not so long ago. Even more recently, when Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, he said, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our Founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
For his part, Joe Biden does try to inject a little of that old-time patriotism into his remarks from time to time. It’s not really taking, though. A big part of his party is singing a different tune, loudly. “The version of ‘history’ that progressives want to teach young people,” the liberal commentator Noah Smith observes, is in general
a cartoonish story in which America is the villain — a nation formed from racism, founded the day the first slave stepped onto our shores, dedicated thereafter to the repression and brutalization of people of color. This “history” ignores America’s deep and powerful tradition of anti-racism, the universalistic egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the abolitionist movement that was present from the very beginning, the Founders’ conception of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, America’s role in the ending of European colonialism, its position at the forefront of liberal democratic reforms and experimentation, the promotion of global standards of human rights following WW2, and so on.
Consistent with that analysis, the think tank More in Common identified a group they termed “progressive activists,” who were 8 percent of the population (but punch far above their weight in the Democratic Party) and “deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America’s direction today.” On the whole, they were “more secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media.”
These progressive activists’ attitude toward their own country departed not just from that of average Americans but from that of average non-white Americans. Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans were highly likely to be proud to be Americans and highly likely to say they would still choose to live in America if they could choose to live anywhere in the world. Progressive activists were loath to express such sentiments.
This is a problem. One of the only effective ways to mobilize Americans behind big projects is to appeal to patriotism, to Americans as part of a nation. Indeed, much of what America accomplished in the 20th century was under the banner of liberal nationalism. Yet many in the Democratic Party blanch at any hint of nationalism — one reason so many are leery of patriotism — because of its association with darker impulses and political trends. Yet, as John Judis has pointed out, nationalism has its positive side as well, in that it allows citizens to identify on a collective level and support projects that serve the common good rather than only their immediate interests.
Given all that Democrats hope to accomplish, it makes no sense not to appeal to Americans’ patriotism and love of country. That too has to be part of Democrats’ rebranding. They must insist that their party is a patriotic party, and they should not shrink from emphasizing the competitive aspect of patriotism. America is indeed in competition with other nations, notably China, and it is not xenophobic to say that America is a great nation that can win that competition.
ADemocratic Party that does not rebrand in these three crucial areas dooms American politics to continued stalemate and polarization — an unpleasant prospect. Conversely, given the serious problems and weaknesses of Republicans, a Democratic Party that occupies the cultural center ground, promotes an abundance agenda, and is unabashedly patriotic has a real shot at a long future of political success.
This week, heretofore nearly anonymous hammer thrower Gwen Berry made international headlines when, during the podium ceremony for winning bronze in an Olympic trial, she turned away from the United States flag as the national anthem played. The anthem wasn’t played for her, or for the other competitors in the hammer throw; every day during the trials, a pre-scheduled anthem went out over the sound system.
Berry turned 90 degrees from the flag, stood with her hand on her hip, and glared directly into the camera. It was a deliberate provocation and a deliberate attempt to raise her own profile. “I feel like it was a setup,” she later complained, “and they did it on purpose.”
Actually, Berry just saw an opportunity to maximize her profile, and she seized it with alacrity. In the United States, there’s far more money to be made and fame to be achieved by spurning the American flag and the national anthem than by embracing it: Colin Kaepernick makes millions because he failed as a quarterback but succeeded as a self-aggrandizing symbol of supposed racial bravery. Meanwhile, the thousands of athletes with track records superior to either Kaepernick’s or Berry’s who stand for the national anthem remain anonymous.
That’s because America currently rewards an entitled sense of grievance. Most Americans know little about foreign countries; they somehow believe that the United States is inferior, or that the prosperity, health and free lifestyle to which they have become accustomed is the global and historic norm.
It most assuredly is not.
While Berry was protesting the national anthem, the Chinese government was busy arresting the editor of the pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily. That arrest came on the heels of the arrest of one of Apple Daily’s columnists for “conspiring to collude with foreign countries or foreign forces to endanger national security.” While Berry was protesting the national anthem, the Taliban was busy spreading like a metastasizing cancer over Afghanistan, preparing its new subjects for the tender mercies of brutal Islamist rule. While Berry was protesting the national anthem during an event at which she threw heavy objects for sport, billions of people were living in absolute privation the world over.
None of this means that the shortcomings of America should be ignored. But to protest the flag or the national anthem as particular symbols of grievance is to demonstrate full-scale your own ignorance and ingratitude. “I’m here to represent those who died due to systemic racism,” Berry said. But she herself is an excellent indicator of just how much promise America holds for its citizens. She grew up in the home of her grandmother, with 13 people in the house; she had a baby out of wedlock at 15 and then earned a college scholarship. She got two jobs and helped support her extended family. Now, she’s going to the Olympics. And presumably, there, she will turn her back on the flag and the national anthem if she makes it to the podium.
In doing so, she’ll become a hero to millions. She’ll get richer; she’ll get more famous. Perhaps, like pseudo-Marxist Patrisse Cullors of Black Lives Matter, she’ll buy herself a few houses; maybe, like Kaepernick, she’ll make the cover of Sports Illustrated. Like self-declared Marxist Cullors, who currently owns three separate houses worth over $1.5 million each, Berry is in it for the attention and the profit. Yesterday, nobody had heard of her. Today, everybody has. It’s that simple.
One thing is certain, however: Those who spend their days championing their own ingratitude at a society that gives them extraordinary opportunities — opportunities unavailable to nearly all humans for nearly all of human history, and unavailable to most people on the planet right now — aren’t likely to live happier lives. And they’re unlikely to make their nations better, either.
I leaned against an oak at the side of the road, wishing I were invisible, keeping my distance from my parents on their lawn chairs and my younger siblings scampering about.
I hoped none of my friends saw me there. God forbid they caught me waving one of the small American flags Mom bought at Ben Franklin for a dime. At 16, I was too old and definitely too cool for our small town’s Memorial Day parade.
I ought to be at the lake, I brooded. But, no, the all-day festivities were mandatory in my family.
A high school band marched by, the girl in sequins missing her baton as it tumbled from the sky. Firemen blasted sirens in their polished red trucks. The uniforms on the troop of World War II veterans looked too snug on more than one member.
“Here comes Mema,” my father shouted.
Five black convertibles lumbered down the boulevard. The mayor was in the first, handing out programs. I didn’t need to look at one. I knew my uncle Bud’s name was printed on it, as it had been every year since he was killed in Italy. Our family’s war hero.
And I knew that perched on the backseat of one of the cars, waving and smiling, was Mema, my grandmother. She had a corsage on her lapel and a sign in gold embossed letters on the car door: “Gold Star Mother.”
I hid behind the tree so I wouldn’t have to meet her gaze. It wasn’t because I didn’t love her or appreciate her. She’d taught me how to sew, to call a strike in baseball. She made great cinnamon rolls, which we always ate after the parade.
What embarrassed me was all the attention she got for a son who had died 20 years earlier. With four other children and a dozen grandchildren, why linger over this one long-ago loss?
I peeked out from behind the oak just in time to see Mema wave and blow my family a kiss as the motorcade moved on. The purple ribbon on her hat fluttered in the breeze.
The rest of our Memorial Day ritual was equally scripted. No use trying to get out of it. I followed my family back to Mema’s house, where there was the usual baseball game in the backyard and the same old reminiscing about Uncle Bud in the kitchen.
Helping myself to a cinnamon roll, I retreated to the living room and plopped down on an armchair.
There I found myself staring at the Army photo of Bud on the bookcase. The uncle I’d never known. I must have looked at him a thousand times—so proud in his crested cap and knotted tie. His uniform was decorated with military emblems that I could never decode.
Funny, he was starting to look younger to me as I got older. Who were you, Uncle Bud? I nearly asked aloud.
I picked up the photo and turned it over. Yellowing tape held a prayer card that read: “Lloyd ‘Bud’ Heitzman, 1925-1944. A Great Hero.” Nineteen years old when he died, not much older than I was. But a great hero? How could you be a hero at 19?
The floorboards creaked behind me. I turned to see Mema coming in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.
I almost hid the photo because I didn’t want to listen to the same stories I’d heard year after year: “Your uncle Bud had this little rat-terrier named Jiggs. Good old Jiggs. How he loved that mutt! He wouldn’t go anywhere without Jiggs. He used to put him in the rumble seat of his Chevy coupe and drive all over town.
“Remember how hard Bud worked after we lost the farm? At haying season he worked all day, sunrise to sunset, baling for other farmers. Then he brought me all his wages. He’d say, ‘Mama, someday I’m going to buy you a brand-new farm. I promise.’ There wasn’t a better boy in the world!”
Sometimes I wondered about that boy dying alone in a muddy ditch in a foreign country he’d only read about. I thought of the scared kid who jumped out of a foxhole in front of an advancing enemy, only to be downed by a sniper. I couldn’t reconcile the image of the boy and his dog with that of the stalwart soldier.
Mema stood beside me for a while, looking at the photo. From outside came the sharp snap of an American flag flapping in the breeze and the voices of my cousins cheering my brother at bat.
“Mema,” I asked, “what’s a hero?” Without a word she turned and walked down the hall to the back bedroom. I followed.
She opened a bureau drawer and took out a small metal box, then sank down onto the bed.
“These are Bud’s things,” she said. “They sent them to us after he died.” She opened the lid and handed me a telegram dated October 13, 1944. “The Secretary of State regrets to inform you that your son, Lloyd Heitzman, was killed in Italy.”
Your son! I imagined Mema reading that sentence for the first time. I didn’t know what I would have done if I’d gotten a telegram like that.
“Here’s Bud’s wallet,” she continued. Even after all those years, it was caked with dried mud. Inside was Bud’s driver’s license with the date of his sixteenth birthday. I compared it with the driver’s license I had just received.
A photo of Bud holding a little spotted dog fell out of the wallet. Jiggs. Bud looked so pleased with his mutt.
There were other photos in the wallet: a laughing Bud standing arm in arm with two buddies, photos of my mom and aunt and uncle, another of Mema waving. This was the home Uncle Bud took with him, I thought.
I could see him in a foxhole, taking out these snapshots to remind himself of how much he was loved and missed.
“Who’s this?” I asked, pointing to a shot of a pretty dark-haired girl.
“Marie. Bud dated her in high school. He wanted to marry her when he came home.” A girlfriend? Marriage? How heartbreaking to have a life, plans and hopes for the future, so brutally snuffed out.
Sitting on the bed, Mema and I sifted through the treasures in the box: a gold watch that had never been wound again. A sympathy letter from President Roosevelt, and one from Bud’s commander. A medal shaped like a heart, trimmed with a purple ribbon. And at the very bottom, the deed to Mema’s house.
“Why’s this here?” I asked.
“Because Bud bought this house for me.” She explained how after his death, the U.S. government gave her 10 thousand dollars, and with it she built the house she was still living in.
“He kept his promise all right,” Mema said in a quiet voice I’d never heard before.
For a long while the two of us sat there on the bed. Then we put the wallet, the medal, the letters, the watch, the photos and the deed back into the metal box. I finally understood why it was so important for Mema—and me—to remember Uncle Bud on this day.
If he’d lived longer he might have built that house for Mema or married his high-school girlfriend. There might have been children and grandchildren to remember him by.
As it was, there was only that box, the name in the program and the reminiscing around the kitchen table.
“I guess he was a hero because he gave everything for what he believed,” I said carefully.
“Yes, child,” Mema replied, wiping a tear with the back of her hand. “Don’t ever forget that.”
I haven’t. Even today with Mema gone, my husband and I take our lawn chairs to the tree-shaded boulevard on Memorial Day and give our three daughters small American flags that I buy for a quarter at Ben Franklin.
I want them to remember that life isn’t just about getting what you want. Sometimes it involves giving up the things you love for what you love even more. That many men and women did the same for their country—that’s what I think when I see the parade pass by now.
And if I close my eyes and imagine, I can still see Mema in her regal purple hat, honoring her son, a true American hero.
Are they fomenting revolution?
There have recently been calls from retired senior officers for active commanders to disobey a presidential order to use federal troops to assist local law enforcement in establishing law and order in some of America’s cities should such an order be given.
The first such call came from James Mattis, Trump’s one time Secretary of Defense, who is also a retired Marine Corps General. He was followed by retired General John Kelly, former Trump Chief of Staff, and Admiral Michael Mullen, Obama Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and several others.
The Hoover Institute’s Victor Davis Hanson wrote a detailed critique of the remarks of several of the most prominent retired senior officers for the National Review (June 2020) which began with this statement:
“In a time of crisis, their synchronized chorus of complaints, falsehoods, and partisan appeals to resistance threaten the very constitutional order they claim to revere.” (ibid)
The first point Hanson makes is that these outbursts violate the Universal Code of Military Justice, “Article 88 of the UCMJ makes it a crime to voice ‘contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State.” (ibid)
Penalties are spelled out in AR 27-10 of the code: “Retired members of a regular component of the Armed Forces who are entitled to pay are subject to the UCMJ (See Art. 2(a) (4), UCMJ.) They may be tried by courts martial for offences committed while in a retired status.” (ibid)
Hanson proceeds to demonstrate conclusively – case by case – how each of the accused has convicted himself by false, contemptuous and/or treasonous public statements. Hanson’s list of violators is impressive: in addition to those mentioned above are Generals Michael Hayden, John Allen, James Clapper, Martin Dempsey, Barry McCaffrey, and Admiral William McRaven. (ibid)
What should be done about these offenders will be discussed below.
First, there are other major issues to be considered beginning with the United States Constitution, Section 2, which clearly states:
“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States. . .. “
This statement has always been interpreted literally, meaning that the authority of the President over the military forces of the country has never been challenged. All the following Presidents are among those who have called up the military to assist in the maintenance of law and order: Washington, Madison, Lincoln, Cleveland, Hoover, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and George H.W. Bush.
There is a very good reason why the Founders stipulated that the military should be under civilian control. That reasoning starts with the historical fact that “whoever has the guns controls the people”. The Founders were acutely aware of this fact. Had not the colonists been armed; they could never have prevailed against the British in their War of Independence. (The same logic applies to the 2ndAmendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms.)
Since the military has the guns, it is vitally necessary that control of those weapons reside in the civilian authority. The alternative can be seen in the many countries in Latin America and the Middle East which are in effect governed directly or with the consent of the Army. Recent examples are Egypt and Venezuela.
To argue against that fundamental organization of the American government is to promote treason. This is why the UCMJ provides for trial by a court martial of any member of the military, active or retired, who advocates the usurpation of the authority of the President over the military. “Political neutrality” means that the military follow the orders of whoever is President without regard to his or her party or policies.
I suspect there is another reason for this bias against this particular President. He is adamantly opposed to the “endless wars” which have dominated America’s foreign policy since 1948 when Truman committed us to Korean independence. These officers have grown up with that policy as a sacred dogma: “America is the policeman of the world”, the “savior of world order”, the “last hope of mankind”, the “bastion of freedom”. These men have dedicated a good portion of their lives to the upholding of that doctrine and seen comrades in arms killed or maimed in its defense.
Now, along comes this civilian who sees things very differently. He sees wars as engines of destruction – of lives, of national wealth, of families, and international commerce. He seeks radical reforms of America’s alliances and trade, and thus introduces a whole new world to these aging warriors. They seehim as the “engine of destruction”, the destroyer of all they have worked for and profited from all their lives. Internationalism gone, close allies downgraded, in some cases alienated. It is just too much. So, they resort to the pen and TV. They believe they serve a sacred cause.
But that cause is neither sacred nor worthy of their efforts. It is the age-old drama of resistance to a new day, to the arrival of a new era. One could sympathize with their plight but for one thing: they are making life more difficult for their successors.
The active senior commanders have admired these very men all their lives, and now their heroes are advocating disobedience to presidential orders, allocating to the active force the authority to decide which of the President’s orders should be obeyed and which should be refused. An agonizing dilemma: obedience or treason!
As a civilian, I am appalled at the behavior of some of our most distinguished retired officers. It is my contention that this treasonous behavior must be stopped before we end up as a banana republic. One way to stop it would be to convene a court martial against one or more of the offenders. That should reinforce the lesson that this nonsense is dangerous to the republic which they have all fought to preserve, but which they are now seeking to destroy because of their own egos.
That is a bridge too far!
Let us restore trust in one another
As I studied Al Smith, I had to look him up and learn more about him. I found what we find in many great leaders — Abe Lincoln, FDR. It’s a focus on making our country a little better when we hand it to the next generation, and having a nonpartisan approach to team-building.
We meet in the spirit here tonight of unity, friendship and patriotism. And so I turned to history, for we’ve been through tough times in the past in our country, and often in history. I have found the way forward.
It’s tempting this evening to look back exactly a century to 1919, the year that Alfred Emanuel Smith first took office as governor of New York. It was in many ways a troubled time. Anti-immigrant fervor ran high, political corruption made national headlines. The glitz of the Jazz Age was real, yet working and living conditions for much of the American population were abysmal. The country was enjoying an economic boom, but a storm was on the horizon. So there’s a certain resonance here with today.
Tonight, I’d like to recede even further into history to 1838 and to Springfield, Ill., and an organization there called the Young Men’s Lyceum, which Abraham Lincoln’s friend William Herndon once described as a society that contained and commanded all the culture of that place.
The month was January, and Lincoln himself was just shy of 29. Violence by supporters of slavery had shattered the state and the nation. At the Young Men’s Lyceum, Lincoln rose to give an address called “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”
It’s a long speech, by my reckoning enough for 12 Al Smith dinners, and there weren’t any jokes. But the core of its message can be simply stated.
Lincoln observed great nations crumble for one of two reasons The first is aggression from the outside … [but] it was not the foreign aggressor we must fear. It was corrosion from within. The rot, the viciousness, the lassitude, the ignorance. Anarchy is one potential consequence of all this. Another is the rise of an ambitious leader, unfettered by conscience, or precedent or decency who would make himself supreme.
“If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
I think often of Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum speech because it embodies both our greatest hopes, and our darkest fears. Today, in our own time, we need only look around us. For decades, our political conduct has been woeful and a source of national paralysis. We have supplanted trust and empathy with suspicion and contempt. We have scorched our opponents with language that precludes compromise. We have brushed aside the possibility that the person with whom we disagree might actually sometimes be right. We proclaim what divides us and seldom even acknowledge what unites us.
Meanwhile, the roster of urgent national issues has continued to grow unaddressed and, given the paralysis, impossible to address, and all of this was approaching a level of crisis even before the specter of impeachment arose.
This is the moment for an act of remembrance. Remembrance of the core principles we used to know and live by, and that we now seem to have forgotten.
We seem to have forgotten that America is not some finished work, nor is it a failed project. Rather, it’s an ongoing experiment for which all of us bear responsibility, including a responsibility to repair.
We seem to have forgotten that the foundational virtue of democracy is trust. Not trust in one’s own rectitude or opinion, but trust in the capacity of collective deliberation to move us forward.
We seem to have forgotten that cynicism, which has now infected the Western democracies, is not realism, for all the weary and knowing heirs it affects. Cynicism is just cowardice.
And finally, we seem to have forgotten the paramount importance of those bonds of affection that Lincoln once spoke of.
We need one another more than ever when the chips are down.
Historically, we have come together in those moments; after the attack on Pearl Harbor, after the 9/11 attack on this very city. The surest path to catastrophe is to ignore our better angels and sever those bonds of affection.
It is hard work to make our democracy work, and indeed our Constitution was designed to make it hard. But as hard as it might be, it is also noble work, for we’re building a country here.
… One day [in Iraq when I was in command there] we apprehended an insurgent in the act of planting a mine on a major road. In fact, it was a road I’d just driven on. Now a prisoner bound hand and foot, he was brought to me by the Marines, because they were surprised to find that he spoke English.
He and I talked for a bit, and I made clear he was lucky to be alive and that he had an orange jumpsuit in his future. He was, no two ways about it, the enemy. At least when he was doing his day job — or his night job. America, in his mind, was the great Satan.
But before he was loaded onto a truck to be taken off to confinement, he said, “General, can I ask you something?” And so I stopped and waited for him. He said, “If I behave myself, if I’m a model prisoner, is there a chance that my family and I can immigrate to America?”
His words reminded me how America is still viewed in the world, even among those who profess to hate it, America remains a power of inspiration in their lives as well. They see our freedoms and our vitality, our long tradition of democratic government, our chaotic and exuberant culture, and they want in.
I often wished that we Americans could see ourselves through foreign eyes. This would remind us of our great good fortune, and of the good things that we have in common. The good things we too often take for granted.
In Springfield, Lincoln invoked biblical language to describe how the power of this common spirit protects our nation. He said, as truly as had been said of the only greater institution, the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
So, ladies and gentlemen, with malice toward none and charity for all, let us restore trust in one another.
This is an excerpt from a speech by former defense secretary and Marine Gen. James Mattis, delivered Oct. 17 at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York City.