The U.S. as a Civilization

A comment on Dr. Heather Cox Richardson’s post of today….

Roger McDonald
5 min readMay 22, 2022

Some may yearn for the “village” where each member takes care of our neighbor and where government stays out of our way. In simplified form, this belief structure is at the heart of traditional Republican platforms: insistence on “small government,” limited regulation, lower taxes, indeed much of the pre-Trump Republican philosophy that culminated in the Tea Party movement during the Obama presidency. The post-Trump philosophy is small government, lower taxes on the rich, increase them on the rest, regulate the hell out of a woman’s right to her body and health, Americans’ right and access to choose (voting, etc.), etc. etc.

There has been an even darker underside of such a value system, a side that emerges when the “village” sees the sanctity of its belief system threatened. And that is one aspect of the polarization of America today. I believe it was Walter Lippmann (or H.L. Mencken) who once wrote that if Congress had to act upon an issue that truly divided the nation, it would fail or the polity would collapse (anyone who knows the source — much appreciate your advice!). Today, it seems, we are at that point of potential collapse, not in terms of interstate commerce (the issue then), but in terms of our ability as a nation to function.

With 333 million people in the U.S., and 7.9B people on Earth, such a “village” can survive and thrive only in coordination and collaboration with the larger whole. Otherwise, with few exceptions, such communities eventually wither and die. But in the early stages, they fight like hell. That is what is going on now, and it does threaten our nation.

Why? Well, human society has evolved. And in particular, the U.S. has become the most diverse country on Earth, in race, in religion, in ethnicity, and in gender choice. The idea that we can “go back” to some imagined age and start again is both a pipedream and extremely dangerous.

To thrive, we must invest in education, the environment, civil society, science, and the arts or we as a nation will wither. And most important, we must energize and encourage that spirit with all Americans. I lived in China for six years in the early 2000’s. China is definitely not a model particularly now under Xi, but I saw then the energy of people focused on self improvement, despite what the government may say or impose. America just seems focused on stupid culture wars (shorthand for a lot else, subject of another post). Science, technology, music, the arts — these all are critically important to a vibrant free society. And each field requires investment. We must do things to keep people healthy and safe. We must ensure that wealth does not get too concentrated in the few. We must protect the ability for “difference” to thrive. Otherwise we, as humans, will destroy each other.

Josh Hawley believes that “self-government of the common man” is the ideal model for America and for liberty. In contrast, according to Hawley, the Democratic legacy from Wilson onward embraced a different concept of liberty, one that separated “liberty” from the ideal/reality of self-government of the common man. He wrote that modern corporate liberalism and the Democrats believe that “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence [and] of meaning.”

To Hawley, this “is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition; of escape from God and community; philosophy of unrestricted, unfettered free choice.” By the same token in his view, the programs instituted by Democratic-led Administrations and Congress from Wilsonian Democracy, FDR’s New Deal and on to LBJ’s “Great Society” and Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can,” make citizens the dependents of government in exchange for freedom of choice. Such programs weaken the bonds of family and tradition and therefore must be overturned.

Perhaps, but no: protect the individual, but also enable the national community to ensure we are a vibrant, healthy, positive, and hopeful nation. It is naïve to believe, as Josh Hawley and Ron DeSantis do, that any one particular vision of society or way of behavior is superior and that others must be expunged. It is also dangerous. Actually very dangerous: fewer and fewer Americans are Christian, straight, white, or believe in one vision. It could get very ugly.

This raises another important concern: the rise of disdain of, and indeed resistance to, government, expertise, science, and general sensibility as portrayed brilliantly and convincingly by Tom Nichols in two of his books. Fueled by the Tea Party, this “movement” and its associated angst was taken up and glorified by Trump, and has become stronger by the year.

And the disdain and suspicion it spreads has been embraced also as a weapon against elitism by the elites themselves. Ivy leaguers, mostly liberal arts majors, fall over themselves to project Democrats and liberals as evil; that Democrats believe that they know best, and are “better than you.” It would be funny as an example of Trumpian “projection,” if it were not so blatantly untrue. A short list to illustrate:

Josh Hawley Catholic boys school, Stanford, Yale Law

J.D. Vance, Ohio State, Yale Law

Ron DeSantis Yale, Harvard Law

Ted Cruz: Baptist high school, Princeton, Harvard Law

Elise Stefanik Catholic girls school, Harvard

Kayleigh McEnany, Catholic girls school, Georgetown, HLS

Tucker Carlson, Trinity College. Episcopalian, Swanson family fortune

Steve Bannon VA Tech, Harvard Business School, father of “destruction of the Administrative State”

(full disclosure, I grew up in New England, graduated from Yale, was an Episcopalian)

It is indeed a dark moment for America when a powerful, highly educated, wealthy class joins to prevent or root out difference or diversity. For the U.S., we must go forward with what we have, as imperfect as it is, and carefully improve it. Indeed, we must admit that “we know best” has been an equally egotistical and arrogant assumption of Democrats as well — after all, many of their leaders and more of their advisors were graduates of the same institutions.

But back to Dr. Richardson’s essay of today (cited below), I do believe that the role of government in a democracy is to enable, nurture, gather and invest resources for the common good. We might not like certain regulations, some may be mistaken. No doubt we do not have it right at this moment — some government administered investments, agencies etc. have been hijacked or are inappropriate. In this we are also still “an Imperfect Union.”

But we can fix these things, not complain or use them — as the media and most Republicans are inclined — to tear down people who are actually trying to fix things. On the contrary, we in fact know how, and we need to cease the harangues that are preventing the repairs. Max Stier, the president and chief executive of the Washington-based Partnership for Public Service (Steven Brill, Tailspin; p282) has been working to do this for years. A big hindrance to progress is that, with each change of Administration or budget cut, programs like his are often the first to go. That is for my next missive!

Originally published at on May 22, 2022.



Roger McDonald

Born and raised by the ocean in New England, lived in Japan, China, the U.K., India; Problem solver and mediator, lifelong passion to help make democracy work.