What would an observer of America make of its recent political activity? It seems like some kind of Greek tragedy, where the Republican Party achieves an incredible victory, both winning control of the Senate and maintaining control of the House of Representatives in a mid-term election where the President’s party typically loses ground.
It made the President and his party stand like a colossus above the body politic, triumphant in a way almost inconceivable two years ago as then-candidate Bush struggled to squeeze into the White House with a minority of the popular vote and a slim and bitterly disputed edge in the Electoral College.
Yet, just as quickly as victory came, setbacks followed. In a Louisiana run-off, the Democrat retained her seat and, then, Trent Lott, once and expected to be future Majority Leader of the Senate, is laid low.
At a combination retirement and centennial birthday party for Strom Thurmond, the oldest Senator, Trent Lott made favorable comments about Thurmond’s run for President back in 1948 as a “Dixiecrat” – the Dixiecrats were disgruntled Democrats from the South. They were disgruntled because they wanted to maintain segregation.
It was an age in which drinking fountains and swimming pools had signs posted: “No Coloreds” or “Whites Only.” Schools, buses, hotels – all were segregated, especially in the South, but well beyond that. When Lena Horne, the famous singer, went to perform in Las Vegas, she went for a swim in the pool. They drained it after she dried off, lest white people would swim in water that had been sullied by a “colored person.”
Segregation was a shame upon our nation and as long as it was practiced, we could never be fully true to our national ideals.
But the story of how America overcame segregation is also one of the great triumphs of human civilization. That a substantial group of people, different in color from the majority population, a people once held in bondage as property and then forced into segregated lives, should be welcomed into general society and rise to the point where the leaders of our foreign policy, our Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, are among their number, this is a triumph unparalleled in human history.
And it speaks to the great strength of America, perhaps the nation’s greatest strength; the U.S.A.’s ability to welcome all races and, with time, to allow members of any race to be full participants in the polity. I think this is why Trent Lott had to leave his post as Majority Leader. His comments implied that if we had continued on the route of segregation, we would somehow be better off. When, of course, just the opposite is true.
America is strong and united now because it has extended citizenship to everyone. For some, it came faster; for the descendants of African slaves, it has been an achingly slow process, but with everyone – whether a Jew fleeing the pogrom, a Quaker seeking shelter from persecution, and Irishman fleeing famine, a Mexican seeking prosperity or a Chinese laborer coming to work on a farm – the process has always ended the same, with the people winding up Americans. We call it the melting pot.
In trade, these practices have given the U.S. much strength. As a gatherer of immigrants, we gather in every skill, every language and every type of food. We export Swedish meatballs, Italian Sausage, Mexican taco shells, Thai soups, Chinese egg rolls and so much more.
And we welcome foreign ideas and foreign people. So come and trade with us; come and be our friends.
We are the quintessential commercial republic, and, even if we have to fight against terrorists or countries that have the potential to do harm to humanity, we yearn for peace; we yearn to welcome the world to our shores, to trade on the high seas and in every port. We welcome all to join us in the “pursuit of happiness,” as our founders put it.
Senator Lott’s remarks made him unsuitable for leadership because they implied that he did not recognize the great glory of American civilization – that by opening our arms wide, we welcome in all sorts of people, products, and ideas, and in so doing we enrich ourselves.
In the end, the consensus behind this welcoming sustains both democracy and capitalism, and it is the rejection of the American policy of openness that inspires her enemies. Those who attacked America on 9/11 were not only for their own brand of Islam, but they were against the world that free people, making free choices, might choose.
Choosing between sushi and fried chicken is just where it starts; the freedom to choose leads one to choose trading partners and opinions, religions and leaders. Trent Lott’s failing was a way for Republicans and Americans to say we opt for inclusiveness. It is an American Choice for which all traders should be grateful.