E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
These days, hardly.
The motto has been an element of the American ethos since an act of Congress in 1782 made it a part of our national seal.
But even the most patriotic optimistic (or optimistic patriot) would be hard pressed to defend with straight face its applicability at the moment.
Our diversity masters teach us that the idea of America as a melting pot is hopelessly outdated. Supposedly, we are now a salad bowl or some such thing, tossed only lightly so that each ingredient maintains its character. In these enlightened circles, assimilation is now a poisoned word as it places an implicit burden on newcomers to become part of an American whole, something to which previous generations (including my immigrant parents) aspired.
So much for any oneness there. Maybe we would be better off with e pluribus pluribus. Out of many, many.
Our current politics, for a few decades now, defy any notion of unity. We have sorted ourselves into rival camps, defined not by skin tone but by tribal colors, red or blue. Each tribe is bound together more by hatred of the other than by any strong set of shared values.
That would lead us to a revised motto of e pluribus duo. Out of many, two.
Trust me on this: Two is not twice as strong as one. Anything but. However, this rewording would be appropriate to our binary times. Except when it comes to gender, too many of us too often view the world in paired terms limited to two choices. We are “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” We identify (or are identified) as pro-police or pro-protester; in favor of “building the wall” or “opening the borders”; “socialist” or “capitalist”; “racist” or “anti-racist.” We find comfort and affirming company in our respective corners, but pretend there are only two corners to every issue.
In this sluggish habit, we paint only in blacks and whites. We eschew nuance. Recalling a favorite line from my father that fits these times long after his death, “Well, I guess we’ve covered all the options from A to B.”
“Unum” left the station some time ago and has been rarely seen since. Do we change it to “duo” or “pluribus”?
Or do we ditch this whole archaic Latin thing in favor of a bit of truth in advertising? Let’s tell it like it is and rally behind the truism that denotes the prevailing attitude all around.
Presenting my suggestion for the new national motto: “Because we can.”
What better slogan for a country in which the ruling party can contend in mock seriousness that a Supreme Court vacancy in February before a November election does not afford ample time and should be filled by the people’s choice of a new president — but that a vacancy occurring in mid-September provides time to spare and should belong to the president six weeks away from likely being shown the door?
Because we can.
But this is not a partisan or tribal statement. There is little doubt that the other party embodies a similar spirit. Given the chance 33 years ago, they brought a new word into the vocabulary by “borking” a nominee of both intellect and character. Why? Because they could and they did.
If or when Democrats regain both the White House and the Senate, they will be pushed strongly by their most impassioned members to even the score through one court-packing scheme or another. Surely, they will adopt somber faces and proclaim high-minded principle. But few will be fooled that it is anything but raw retaliation.
Again, because we can.
How better to explain a party that once preached accountability and fiscal responsibility, even if often just for optics, but now apparently could care less about oversight and stands effectively mute as their president dismisses one departmental inspector general after another? Chant it together: Because we can.
How does someone of prominence, to understate it a tad, lead a lifestyle of lavish luxury and tout his riches but year after year after year pay zero or virtually zero federal income tax? And then have the unparalleled gall to point to it as some mark of genius? You know the answer by now. Because he can.
On and on it goes. We would like to believe that this is only a feature of the governing class. But there is unquestionably a trickle-down effect. We are loath to admit it, but take increasing license to shade the truth or believe only what is convenient or take every advantage, unfair or not. “Because we can” is not just Washington code. It fits our country from sea to shining sea.
In fact, in a telling way, it is an ethic that unites us across tribal lines.
Barack Obama was elected to the presidency with the uplifting message of, “Yes we can.” Si se puede, as many would recite in our neighboring tongue. But for all the inspiring talk of hope and change, there was no shortage of cynical, “because we can” calculation when it came to governance. Don’t forget that Obamacare passed the Senate on a 60-39 party line vote, rushed through while Democrats still enjoyed their filibuster-proof supermajority before the seating of a newly-elected Republican to the vacancy caused by Ted Kennedy’s death.
That is also precedent for this moment. Quoting Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Turning to another late 19th century writer, Finley Peter Dunne gave one of his fictional characters the apt line, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” That has never been more true than it is today.
Still, if America is to be truly great again, and if there is ever serious intent to recapture the “unum,” all involved on both sides of the hardened divide might consider an attitude adjustment. It would sound mighty sweet to now and then hear, “We could…but we thought better of it.”