Despite the range of domestic and international challenges currently confronting us as a nation, the recent months have seen an inordinate amount of the nation’s attention taken up by debate over building a wall at our southern border. In its most extreme version, this would be a 30-foot tall concrete barrier, stretching over much if not most of the 2,000 mile long border with Mexico.
The stated rationale for such a wall is to provide a barrier against an alleged relentless flow of drugs, crime, terrorism, and an influx of immigrants purported to overburden our economy and infrastructure. Substantial questions have been raised about the actual causes and magnitude of these problems, as well as the effectiveness of a physical barrier in dealing with them. (Most illegal drugs for example come through legal ports of entry rather than being ferried across desolate areas of the border.)
Yet despite the practicalities of building such a barrier, its great cost, and the questions about its effectiveness, diehard supporters of the project cannot seem to let go of the concept and were willing to force a month-long government “shutdown” in order to obtain the funding to move forward.
In view of this, those on the Left struggle to understand the vehemence with which Wall supporters cling to this initiative. Common explanations in the Liberal/Progressive camp center around racism or fear and hatred of a foreign other. Note that these are outward-directed motivations. Simply stated, bad or otherwise undesirable people are “out there”, and we must prevent them from getting “in here”.
Were this the whole story, facts and figures about actual crime rates and sources of the same might go some way toward mitigating the urgency in this matter. The fact that it does not suggests that something deeper in the human psyche, something inward, is likely at work. To the extent that is the case, further arguments against the Wall and those who support it are likely to be wasted effort.
It is here proposed that the symbolic significance of a border wall is not so much to keep things out, but rather to keep something in — specifically, the idealized vision of what we’ve long believed America to be.
Since the United States’ heyday (sometime around the middle of the 20th Century), citizens have watched the promise of America steadily slip away for growing numbers of people. We had cherished beliefs and myths about our place in the world — who we were and what our country stood for. America was a “land of opportunity”, a level playing-field where hard work paid off, and anyone could grow up to be president. We were a “shining City on a hill” — a benefactor to and an exemplar for the rest of the world.
However, in the latter decades, we watched this grand vision gradually deteriorate. Our country was involved in a number of controversial military campaigns, with great cost in dollars and lives — often with no clear outcome. We watched good paying jobs and companies leave the country. We’ve seen economic insecurity increase, putting “the good life” out of reach for growing numbers. We’ve seen stable, predictable communities change with diversification — now sometimes operating by rules we don’t understand.
At the same time, we’ve watched foreign powers like China and the European Union — even Russia — grow in wealth, power, and influence.
A Wall or a Container?
There may well be a powerful subconscious sense that the America we knew and loved is somehow draining away — perhaps to be absorbed by other peoples and nations. Fear of death and oblivion, even if of an ideal, is one of the greatest of motivators. From that perspective, it is easier to understand the resonant appeal of a slogan like “Make America Great Again”. Further, it is understandable that, with the panic of a drowning man, one might cling to the idea of building not so much a wall but a symbolic container, in order to keep in and preserve that which we fear we are losing.
One of the hallmarks of Conservatism is a nostalgic longing for things of the past. If such longing were directed toward the positive aspects of the mid 20th Century vision listed above, who would fault that? Recovering those should be embraceable from all points on the political spectrum.
Yet those past times also included phenomena not so benign — racism, sexism, slavery. Instead of realizing that these were merely epiphenomena of the times, some people may become confused, believing that the path back to a desired past requires a reinstatement of those negative social dynamics.
With that understanding, rather than becoming diverted into divisive labeling, shaming, and blaming, we might bridge the Right-Left divide by going deeper, to those values that we do share in common. Unless damaged by life circumstance, everyone wants to be healthy and happy. Everyone wants the opportunity to develop their potential and to enjoy what life has to offer. And they want the same for their children. Nationally, (in perhaps a more benign take on “MAGA”), we all simply want to feel good about the country we live in.
From that perspective, rather than fight against a Wall and its proponents, a more effective approach would acknowledge the primary fears and insecurities that make people susceptible to manipulation by Far-Right rhetoric, then address them with a positive, constructive, political agenda.
Such an agenda must reject any us-versus-them, “let’s fight ‘em” messaging — replacing it with a unitive message that all citizens are valued members of society, and that the primary goal of progressive leadership is to support and encourage each citizen toward reaching their potential to contribute to the health of society at large. Accordingly, current Progressive proposals with the goal of making education, healthcare, and a basic standard of living available to all are an initial step in that direction.
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In its original meaning “conservatism” was about conserving that which we value. As a nation, such values have more to do with morality than materialism — how we treat each other, and how do we best move forward as a society. In this sense, these values do not require a physical barrier or container on the nation’s border. In our hearts and minds, each of us is ultimately the moral container for the values we cherish. And each of us has the opportunity to serve as our own shining beacon to others.
May we let the best that is within us shine.