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Opinion: Save America with healthy skepticism of government, president

Shaun Cammack

As we near the end of the 45th presidency, with so many Americans looking back at the past four years as either a train-wreck or a triumph, there is one aspect of the Trump presidency that we should all be grateful for.

The Trump presidency has made us much more aware of our government and civic processes. Whereas in earlier years — and much to the chagrin of our high-school civics teachers — the average American was fairly unaware of these systems, the roles of the three branches, federalism, impeachment, Supreme Court nominations, etc., are now common knowledge to the average American. 

President Donald Trump, left, remains on stage as then-Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, walks away Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

With this political awareness comes political criticism. And it is a very good thing that citizens of a democracy look upon their government with an air of skepticism.

Now, of course, we have some political maturing to do in this country. Our discourse is, broadly speaking, the “my dad can beat up your dad” vein of criticism. That is to say, the criticisms leveled by citizens are along stark partisan lines. The left is deeply critical of President Donald Trump, whereas his supporters often give him a pass, and vice versa for President-elect Joe Biden. 

Unfortunately, our current state of criticism has pitted neighbors and families against each other, with lines drawn along red and blue teams. “The problem isn’t just Trump,” the title of a thousand opinion pieces read, “but also his supporters.” 

But if we're going to have a national government where things like secession and re-education camps are off the table, then the necessary “us versus them” thinking is not partisan, but rather should be the people versus the government. This kind of criticism is absolutely essential to a healthy liberal democracy, otherwise we risk falling into a tacit statist authoritarianism. “I don’t care what the government does” is a blank check to bureaucrats. 

And so as we move into a Biden presidency, it’s important that we try take the next step from political awareness into a healthy political criticism. This means that if you’re a Democrat, in spite of the fact that Biden was your preferred candidate, that you continue your criticism and skepticism of the president. Keep the heat on Trump’s successor.

This also means that if you’re a Trump supporter, Republican lawmakers and politicians are as much a target for your ire as Biden. 

The vehicle for this next stage of political maturation in our modern democracy is, naturally, free and open expression. In fact, the Founding Fathers crafted the first amendment with this in mind. In addition to protecting religious liberties, free speech is absolutely essential to maintaining a properly bounded government. “In those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own,” wrote a young Ben Franklin, “he can scarce call any thing else his own.”

Is what I’m advocating for feasible, or am I looking into the future with a rose-colored crystal ball? I might be, but there are only a few options for our future in a country with serious polarization, mutual animosity, ever-encroaching political violence and extremism, and partisanship. Either one side wins and the other side is crushed with force, both sides lose after a long civil conflict, one side secedes from the arrangement entirely, or we learn to get along by directing our mistrust and criticism towards the government instead of each other. 

So yes, perhaps I’m betting on the optimistic option. But so should you. If we want to keep this whole American experiment together, it’s going to take some optimism. So tolerate your neighbor, cast a doubtful eye towards your government and keep the heat on the next administration.

Shaun Cammack (@shauncammack) analyzes political narratives at NarrativesProject.com. He’s a recent MA graduate from the University of Chicago, and an associate contributor with Young Voices.