Families all over America today will sit down together and give thanks. The meal may take place in a mansion or a soup kitchen; the family in question may be a broad, expansive net or a tattered remnant. But regardless of circumstances, we are enjoined, at this season, to express gratitude.
It's something we don't hear much of in our politics these days, which are increasingly rooted in the base emotions of resentment and fear. Partisans on all sides rally the troops by predicting the calamitous consequences of defeat, while the resentful troops, suspicious of being conned, periodically mutiny to follow self-appointed tribunes who, however tainted, promise total victory.
And when we do give voice to positive feelings, the word we often use is pride, a very different, in some ways even an opposed sentiment. Pride aggrandizes the self and demands recognition. Its natural counterparts are shame on the part of those who cannot share in our pride and resentment on the part of those who question our self-assessment.
Gratitude, by contrast, should be a humbling emotion, especially for those in comfortable circumstances who recognize that those with far less nonetheless are able to see their lives as blessed. But it should not a humiliating one, for anyone. To be grateful is to understand one's good fortune as a gift, rather than something wholly earned or deserved. But, because it is a gift, good fortune should not inspire shame or embarrassment, but rather warm feelings toward the giver and a desire to justify that gift.
A politics with no room for gratitude, only for pride and shame, fear of losing what one has and resentment of others who have more, is going to be brittle, shallow, and self-deluding — and will end up losing much of what it desperately hopes to hold onto.
And yet, Americans have a great deal to be grateful for.
Consider the state of our national security. The United States is one of the most secure countries in the history of the world, and we are more secure today than we have ever been in our history. Fifty years ago, we were deeply engaged in an unwinnable war in Southeast Asia, and all around the globe communist tyranny seemed to be gaining the upper hand. One hundred years ago, American doughboys were crossing the Atlantic to make the world safe for democracy, only to see those hopes dashed while dissent was undemocratically crushed at home.
The scale of past threats may have been exaggerated, but by any sensible comparison no competitor to the United States today poses anything close to an existential threat to our freedom or independence. The United States could abandon the Middle East entirely without worrying that we would be starved for energy. We could abandon the Korean Peninsula entirely without fear of encouraging a North Korean invasion of our territory. That such precipitate actions would not be prudent on our part does not change the extraordinary asymmetry of our position vis-a-vis the rest of the world. It is a tragedy that, rather than freeing us, we have allowed our extraordinary power to become our prison.
Similar statements could be made about our wealth and prosperity. Yes, the country has serious problems — gross disparities of wealth, crumbling infrastructure, whole regions suffering from an epidemic of despair. But consider the asset side of the ledger — consider only the sheer mind-boggling scale of the United States, the extraordinary scope and variety of its natural endowments. Howsoever large our problems are, do we really doubt that we have the resources to address them, should we choose to, and need not appeal to the charity of those better-situated? How many of the world's nearly 200 recognized countries can say the same? Should that simple fact not make us grateful?
Politicians have to mobilize people somehow, and negative partisanship is a powerful motivator. And even a campaign with a compelling positive agenda — fix the New York subways, say — will be rooted in dissatisfaction with the status quo — New York's subways are a disaster! — and, likely, an indictment of those who caused the problem or failed to solve it. But there should be room, even in our agitated age, for a pause to be thankful for what we have. Taking the time for gratitude is crucial for sustaining a happy marriage. It's no less important for our civic health — if for no other reason than to put our anger and fear into some kind of rational perspective, and to keep fellowship with one another even as we engage in partisan combat over the best way forward.
Our first national Thanksgiving, after all, was proclaimed in the midst of actual combat (though by then the tide had turned decisively in the Union's favor, making it perhaps easier to be effusive; Lincoln's 1862 proclamation was more subdued). And so that's something we should be grateful for as well: that, even now, it's hard to seriously imagine our all-pervasive Twitter wars culminating in a literal Antietam.