Today our nation faces deep problems and divides. Common ground feels rare on good days, and impossible to achieve on most. Some Americans argue that these trench-line disagreements are a result of the moral degradation of citizenship; a country without a moral standards. My grandfather is one of these Americans. The tumult of our nation, he says, is due to the country’s failure to maintain traditions of common decency and compromise. My grandfather and many others argue that the virtues of civic republicanism – cooperation, compromise, and consideration – are inherent within our national identity and should be reflected in our politics. I disagree. From the birth of our nation, the values ofUS civic republicanism haven’t been afforded to all communities. Communities in the US have been continually denied participation in the greater, civic republicanism community due to racialized, gendered, homophobic, and xenophobic biases. Viewing our nation’s past of civic republicanism through this lens reveals much about our current political climate, exposing challenges in returning to political civility.
My journey in exploring our nation’s past of civic republicanism began with a recent road trip through the Old West – a region of the United States that particularly prides itself on civic republicanism values. I spent the first week of my semester traveling the northern Western states of the United States with my family and other eclipse chasers. While on the highway through the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, the values of civic republicanism were evident in nearly every road stop and curious shop during the thirteen hour drive. At the National Oregon California Trail Center in Montepelier, Idaho, the idea of community survival was emphasized, with the museum docents insisting that settlers would not survive the journey without cooperation, trade, and communal attitudes. Without trusting neighborhoods, they said, crops would not flourish, wagons would not repair, and livestock would die.
Upon arriving back to Phoenix, many of the values I experienced on my road trip were reflected back within the Barn Raising and Port Huron readings. While reading, sentiments expressed in the text were reflective of the civic republicanism that I experienced on the road trip’s museums. Memories in the text of Montana, “But on these Montana plains, life was still harsh enough that they had no choice. Avoiding people you did not like was not an option. Everyone was needed by each other in some capacity” (121), made me reflect on the Wyoming plains that I had just experienced. After seeing the arid land that stretched for miles, I was agreed that a community couldn’t thrive without codependence and trust. Just as it took a community to build a barn, it would take a community to fend off buffalo, starvation, and disease.
Yet, both while reading the museum exhibits and class readings, the idea of community dependence felt misleading. While settlers in Idaho may have embraced fellow settlers, they certainly didn’t embrace indigenous populations. Instead of relying on indigenous communities for trade and knowledge exchange, they responded with gunpowder and alienation. The restrictive nature of American community can also be seen through subtler ways. The barns built by Kemmis were most likely constructed by a community of white individuals – certainly not reflective of racial, religious, or other identity differences.
The community of the United States that our nation currently faces is much more diverse, intersectional, and different than the community early settlers or theorists faced. Learning to work together requires not only overcoming differences in opinions, but also the acceptance of the humanity within every person and community. It’s hard to work together over a collective issue if all sides at the table don’t agree who deserves to be at the table. As our nation struggles an openly racist President and growing white-supremacy movements, the current loss of civility makes sense. Our nation can only build a barn together after it accepts the ability of every individual to build a barn – a consensus of unity, inclusion, and diversity that our country hasn’t reached. With this in mind, perhaps civic republicanism can still thrive in the United States – but only after our nation expands ‘community’ to include more than just the white cis-males elected to office.