If We Can Keep It

Rich Americans have always walled themselves away from the poor, except, of course, when they need the poor to clean up after them.

American men have always kept women in second class status, happy to use the courts to make sure women stay second class. For most of our country’s history, men even kept women from serving on juries, lest that service would keep them from serving their husbands’ dinners.

And for hundreds of years of our history, Americans have kept people with more melanin in their skin cells divided away in poverty of flesh and spirit.

Lo, these divisions have been with us always, West Virginia native Michael Tomasky writes in his newest book. For those who think the divided times we are living through must be new, Tomasky says “no.”

But if we have always been divided, does that mean we can ignore these divisions and carry on as normal? Again, Tomasky says, “No,” and adds, “We are in trouble.”

Tomasky takes the title of his book, “If We Can Keep It,” from a quote from one of our great founding fathers, Ben Franklin. After the Constitutional Convention, Franklin was asked if he and the other founders had created a republic or a monarchy? Franklin said, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We have no guarantee that this wonderful gift we inherited will always be there for us unless we step up and make sure it thrives, Tomasky argues.

Are we too comfortable to care? We might take our stand outside the doors of a big box store, waiting to get inside and gobble up the sales. But will we stand in line to vote? Tomasky argues we may be too materialistic to turn from our own care and feeding to the care of our democracy.

Money taints politics, too, and thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, money can talk all it wants.

Tomasky has written several books, including “Hillary’s Turn” and “Left for Dead.” He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast, a contributor to The New York Review of Books, and a contributing opinion editor for the New York Times. For this and much more, we West Virginians can be proud of him.

He is even friends with E.J. Dionne!

Beatles fans may have another reason to remember Tomasky. Besides his ability to write, he is a musician. He and his bandmates who make up The Social Demons took part in last year’s Beatles marathon.

As readers, each time we encounter Tomasky, he gives us the benefit of the depth and breath of his readings from history and politics.

I would even suggest that many of the chapters in this book are so full of details they could serve as a reference guide.

As he explains early in his book, “Knowing this history empowers us to think about our system more critically and makes us more willing to wonder if we can do things a better way.”

Even though I think this book could stand as a reference guide, do not think his writing is dry — just the opposite. He gives readers this rich source of material written in a lively and clear way.

In his clear way, Tomasky has organized our divisions and placed them in what he calls the four ages. He breaks them out as The Age of Creation from 1787 to 1865, The Age of Power from 1865 to 1929, The Age of Consensus from 1933 to 1980, and The Age of Fracture, from 1980 to now.

To give credit where credit is due, Tomasky points out that he took the name of the fourth age from the book by that name written by Daniel T. Rogers. Rogers also argues that these fractures in our political systems must be mended.

We have come together at times to accomplish big, clear goals like moving people out of the poverty of The Great Depression and defeating Hitler.

Our political parties today are obviously divided. While Donald Trump makes our divisions worse, Tomasky argues that even if Hilary Clinton had been elected instead, we would still be facing these perilous divisions that were already there before the last election.

Our maps are colored with red states and blue states. City dwellers wonder why rural voters cast their ballots against their own self-interest.

Many writers are good at outlining problems, but Tomasky also offers 14 solutions. One of them is: “Vastly expand civics education.” We need to understand the instructions that come with citizenship, he argues.

Also in his list of 14, he argues that we should do away with gerrymandering that favors incumbents and actually takes away true representation from citizens.

Get rid of the Electoral College, he suggests, or at least make it obey the popular vote.

He correctly includes right wing media like Fox News in his explanation of what has helped to fracture and divide our country. I found it interesting that while I was still reading Tomasky’s book, the story broke explaining a Fox reporter could have been the first to report that Donald Trump paid hush money to Stormy Daniels. The reporter kept asking her editor why the story was not running. She was finally told, “Sorry. Rupert wants Trump to win.”

Social media have accelerated problems. Tomasky makes these excellent points:

“We are at a point in history …that is ominous …For all of human history, every advance in communications technology has been good for democracy. The original printing press; the ‘lightning’ rotary press of the 1840s; the radio; the television; Internet websites and search engines. All helped to expand and diffuse knowledge, and all helped to improve the quality of debate. Not uniformly, of course, …But on balance, all helped make the people a more informed populace …

“But paradoxically, in free societies, social media are toxic from a democracy standpoint …”

He goes on to write that “social media are anti-deliberative. They encourage and reward instantaneous, emotional reactions rather than reflection.”

The people who become the stars of social media are the ones who tend to say “the most outrageous things, the most racist things, the most antidemocratic things.”

He goes on to point out our founding fathers believed that to survive our democracy “would depend on reasonable people reasoning together.”

He notes that a former Facebook executive has confessed to feeling guilty about the harm his former company has done. Chamath Palihapitiya said, “It is literally at a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

As millions more people only find news at the ends of their noses attached to their phones the prospect of an informed electorate seems less likely all the time.

Our history of racism is one of the saddest parts of this book. Tomasky does an excellent job of pointing out time period after time period of how we operated as a nation, but each time we found ways to be cruel about skin color. The settings changed, but not the attitude.

Tomasky concludes his book by saying we know what we must do to save our democracy. We just need to do it.

Tomasky explains that he was finishing this book last summer. So many important events that could have been in his book did not make his deadline.

With that deadline in mind, he writes near the end of his book only a few, but brilliant sentences about the young people we now know who attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

He writes that these young people “comported themselves with stunning dignity in the face of some vile attacks. They spoke for their 17 deceased classmates, and for so many other victims of gun violence who didn’t have the political power to win the kind of national attention they had, was exactly in keeping with the best traditions of American protest that we have. If that tragedy marked a turning point in the gun debate, it will be because of the skill, passion, and hope they communicated to the country in those dark days.”

Amen. They give us hope.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was privileged to have this impressive young man in my English classes when I taught at West Virginia University. Morgantown native Michael Tomasky always gives me hope. He reads widely. He thinks clearly.

I hope there are still enough readers around who can take up his book and try to save our republic.

Williams is a retired Gazette reporter.

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