America has a Great Seal. It was adopted in 1782 as an outgrowth of the Declaration of Independence. The Continental Congress’s work on the Great Seal was begun just hours after the adoption of the Declaration. A Committee was appointed to give America a visual symbol and thematic beginning.
The national theme was chosen by the first of three committees. The Committee work was led by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. The theme or what is often called our national motto: E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many One.
I would like to suggest a new beginning—a 21st Century revisitation of our most fundamental expressions. A Congressional resolution that details Committee membership and objectives with recommendations due within a reasonable time frame.
While I would favor re-affirmation of Out of Many One, everybody should be given a chance to voice their opinions and then their representatives should advance a bill to both Houses of Congress.
We are at the beginning of what will become a candidate cacophony. It will at times be an angry exchange. It is this reality that took me back to our nation’s initial motto, Out of Many One.
Each candidate for President will be the subject of profiles and interviews and later debates. Why not begin interviews with those four words on our Seal? Asking: What do they mean to you? How do you believe the founding principle applies to contemporary politics? Would E Pluribus Unum inform your approach to being President? And, would you support a resolution calling for a Congressional Committee to re-visit our thematic beginning?
Voters most often, research shows, form opinions around basic expressions of goals and ambitions. They don’t delve into complex plans to revise our health care system or tax policy. And those that do not have a partisan default view size up candidates impressionistically more often than not.
Is it possible to get beyond identity politics used as a weapon? Is divide and conquer such a well-practiced tactic that it has become a habit? Can reporters go beyond the daily fury and attempt to probe more fundamental motives? Would this be a useful exploration for voters? Or is division more important than addition?
There is, in our technology centric age, a conceit that everything has changed. Yet, we are many and it will stay that way. The Southern border might tighten but even if it does, we will still be many. Our ethnicities will be varied and our socio-economic circumstances will be diverse. We will either exist on the combustible edge or we will find a better national temperament.
Today’s political Parties have ultra-aggressive populist wings. Progressives want to re-engineer parts of America and are finding that their more radical views are fuel for populists on the Right. And on the populist Right a new isolationism and willingness to plan our industrial future are rapidly evolving. Each wing is smaller than it is portrayed, but their fervor and discipline are like helium. And, neither wing emphasizes the need to bring people together. Togetherness is attending amped up political rallies adorned with sporting regalia.
Progressives, the populist Left, made a bargain that has served it well. They made a deal with a candidate who became President—Joe Biden. When my wife Marty worked on the Senate side of Capitol Hill she saw then Senator Biden regularly because her office in Senator John C Danforth’s suite was near his. She commented that he was always engaging and pleasant, while most Senators strode down the hall looking neither left nor right. Might this demeanor have been determinative?
On the Right former President Trump retains a fervent following. Over the weekend in portraying his candidacy to his supporters, he said: “I am your retribution.” What he doesn’t have is a following of people who want a President of even and at times gracious temperament. This, in my view, is a dominant preference in the middle ground of politics. When divisiveness is the candidates’ offer, the risk of failure in the general election is much greater. And importantly, campaign excesses often translate into societal ones.
A campaign without sharp differences would be lame and anti-democratic. But there is a radical difference between disagreement and demonization. I believe the person who takes the oath to become the next President in 2025 will reflect a degree of calm as he/she seeks to bring the country together. In the meantime, maybe we should all participate in defining our nation’s symbols and theme.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.