What is Our Story of America?

Republicans and Democrats contrasted the history of our nation and who benefits from it.

History is not something that we generally grasp as a collection of dates. We tend to understand both our past and present as a story that weaves a myriad of details into a narrative that communicates the values associated with our experience. Here is what community organizer Marshall Ganz wrote about the importance of stories.

We don’t just talk about hope and other values in abstractions. We talk about them in the language of stories because stories are what enable us to communicate these values to one another…

A story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts. That’s the power of story. That’s why most of our faith traditions interpret themselves as stories, because they are teaching our hearts how to live as choiceful human beings capable of embracing hope over fear, self-worth and self-love over self- doubt, and love over isolation and alienation.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been struck by the story of America as it is told differently by Republicans and Democrats. The actual dates and events these stories draw upon are not necessarily different. But they demonstrate the power of story by the way they are crafted to communicate very different values that are sometimes at odds with one another.

More than anyone else at the Republican Convention last week, Ted Cruz told the Republican story of America.

America is more than just a land mass between two oceans, America is an ideal. A simple, yet powerful ideal. Freedom matters.

For much of human history government power has been the unavoidable constant in life. Government decrees and the people obey, but not here. We have no king or queen, we have no dictator, we the people constrain government.

Our nation is exceptional because it was built on the five most beautiful and powerful words in the English language, “I want to be free.”

The picture Cruz paints is of a country where the people constrain an evil government that threatens our individual freedom. In addition, the dogwhistles about “making America great again” paired with Cruz’s emphasis on an originalist interpretation of the Constitution harken back to a day when that individual freedom was primarily the domain of white males.

Ever since he burst on the national scene at the 2004 Democratic Convention in support of John Kerry, Barack Obama has been telling a different story of America.

John Kerry believes in America. And he knows it’s not enough for just some of us to prosper. For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga.

A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper” that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.

When Martin Longman writes that “The Convention Showed Confident Democrats and Progressives,” it was the proud confident telling of this story of America he was referring.

This time, Rev. William Barber II was invited to speak in primetime as a warm-up act for Hillary Clinton. The Democrats didn’t shy away from their African-American and Latino supporters. There was no Jesse Jackson figure to bash, no Sister Souljah to scold. Black and Latino organizers weren’t humored and hidden but invited onto the stage, one after another after another. Muslims weren’t a scary constituency to be scapegoated, but the scapegoating of Muslims was morally shamed in the most visible and compelling way possible. The LGBT community was celebrated over and over again. The disabled have never enjoyed so much focus and respect.

You might want to check out that speech by Rev. William Barber II. But perhaps more than any other speech this week, it was the one by Khizr Khan that captured this story of America best.

With a hand over his heart and a copy of the Constitution in his pocket, Khizr Khan spoke as a “patriotic American Muslim” – one who has sacrificed his own son as a soldier in our military. Next time you hear a journalist or a Republican refer to “real Americans,” I suggest you think of Khizr Khan’s family. A story of America that doesn’t include them and a concern for their welfare is one that ignores all of the battles that have been fought over these last 240 years to expand what we mean by “We the people…”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .