Missio on Grumbling: America, de Tocqueville, and Complaining

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great. (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America)

Page_from_original_working_manuscript_of_Democracy_in_America_by_Alexis_de_TocquevilleIntrigued by the flourishing of the United States of America, France sent Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont to study American culture in early 1831. Following a roughly yearlong adventure into the American heartland, Tocqueville recorded his discoveries about American life and liberty in a two-volume work entitled, De la Démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America). “America is great because she is good,” Tocqueville wrote, stirring over the prosperity and glory of a nation born from a bunch of ragtag colonies. “America is…good.” With riots in Baltimore, church shootings in South Carolina, and constant corruption on D.C. and Wall Street, this is hardly the description most would give America today. Furthermore, a quick listen to any of the current presidential debates shows that most people think America is in a ravenous downward spiral. “Make America Great Again,” “A New American Century,” “Reigniting the Promise of America”—endless slogans call out the disappointment of the age and try to reinvigorate a sense of hope for our country.

What in the world happened between Tocqueville and today? Countless books have been written on the digression of American life since the 1800s, and I’m not here to add anything particularly new. Also, I’m not here to make the case that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, or that it must return to its “Christian roots” in order to prosper. These are matters for another place and another time. Instead, I want to answer this question by making a simple observation about complaining. There is no doubt that America is in a tough spot, but America has been in tough spots before. Lest we romanticize the past, remember the Civil War happened just thirty years after Tocqueville wrote his treatise. The U.S. was not a perfect place in 1830, and it will not be perfect in 2030. But a trait worth noting about our present state is our persistent complaining. The constant societal whine disturbs me and, I argue, it is one of the greatest hindrances to our nation’s flourishing.

As a Congressional intern, a large part of my job is devoted to listening to the complaints of constituents. Every day, numerous people call our office bemoaning the state of our nation, politicians, and world. Sometimes these conversations are profitable, and those who call in truly want answers for how to solve important issues. Regretfully though, most of the time my work is to simply sit and, like rain on a windowsill, listen to incessant whining. The truth is, I actually do enjoy listening to constituents and am excited to help in any way I can. But after listening to literally hundreds of calls, I cannot help but observe that most of this complaining is purposeless. That is, there is no positive re-direction that comes out of these conversations. Many Americans simply want to latch on to the problems they face and grumble. If things were going well in this country, I wonder if many would even be happy.

I realize this sounds harsh, but part of the problem is that most politicians are unwilling to address the pervasive issue of complaining. In fact, many politicians practice this same destructive habit. Rather than addressing issues head on, they pontificate on the faults of a bill, the opposite party, and the current political situation. In particular, the Republican Party is notorious for this. On October 29, 2015, Senator Ted Cruz [R-TX] articulated this clearly on the Senate floor. In summary, he spoke about how in 2008, when President Obama was elected to office, Republicans said, “If only we had a majority in the House, we could get stuff done.” In 2011, millions of Americans came out to vote and the House was taken over by Republicans. After two years of little accomplishment, Republicans again cried out, “If only we had a majority in the Senate, we could get stuff done.” So, in 2013, millions of Americans came out again to vote, and nine Senate seats were stolen from the Democrats, giving Republicans a majority in both chambers. Sadly though, after two more years of little accomplishment and tremendous struggle, Republican rhetoric has shifted once more to, “If only we had the White House, we could get stuff done.” Now, to extend some grace to Republicans, the reality is that politics is really hard. The heaviest issues in the world are debated, people who see the world from radically different perspectives must pass legislation together, and the media and national base is constantly pointing out every failure and fault. It does not bother me that Republicans have a difficult time passing legislation, or Democrats for that matter. What bothers me is that there is always an excuse or complaint about why things do not happen.

I argue that part of the “good” Tocqueville saw in the people of the United States was a shared value known as resolve. Think about it. When the pilgrims came over from England in the early 1600s, these early settlers faced harsh winters, ravenous disease, and constant danger from animals and Native Americans. Throughout the 1700s, early America faced continual oppression from The Crown. On top of this, she endured and won multiple wars by only the strength of thirteen colonies, a vision of Freedom, and the grace of God. And out of these struggles, a nation was born. The American men and women that Tocqueville met came from a lineage of resolve. They had starved. They had warred. They had conquered. They had overcome unbelievable difficulty, and the “American spirit” of freedom was inextricably linked to a spirit of resolve. This resolve is the piece of American heritage that has slowly been pushed out by comfort, luxury, and ease. It seems that, in large part, Americans are no longer defined by struggle, but instead by leisure.

Because of this, our society faces a deep problem. Our complaining has turned into a craving. That is, we crave more of the luxury and ease that has brought us to this terrible place, and we continue to complain when these luxuries are threatened. Thus, a vicious circle of despondence and sloth has started. How deeply we need a re-vitalization of our heritage of resolve, before we lie in a grave of craving. Instead of complaining, how refreshing it would be to see a group of men and women in politics who fail miserably over and over again, but never leave the fight. How refreshing it would be to see a group of constituents continue to back their Representatives and Senators, supporting them regardless of results. How refreshing it would be to have a media that tries to instill hopeful messages of courage and calls to strength during these difficult times. Undeniably, the fault is on all of us. But, I urge us to not complain. Let’s see the problem and respond with courage and resolve. Let’s crave the “good” that Tocqueville saw in early America, and once again establish the vision that made America what she was—great.

 

Ryan Burns interns on Capitol Hill and is part of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.
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