In my numerous conversations with fellow immigrants in America over the years, I have found that the one thing that endlessly fascinates us is the egalitarian nature of American society. Most of us spent our formative years in hierarchical societies. In many of those places, although all kinds of laws existed on the books, the rich and powerful had little respect for them. People in the upper echelons of society frequently acted with impunity and there was nothing or anyone to hold them accountable.
In contrast, we find in America a society that does not tolerate such latitude. Whether one is rich or poor, powerful or without influence, the expectation is that everyone will be held accountable for any of their perpetrated actions that are injurious to the public.
We do recognize that even in this land of accountability, the playing field is not always level. Wealthy Americans for instance are better able to escape the clutches of the law when they fall afoul because they can pay for the best legal services. Quite often, the best that the indigent can hope for are overburdened public defenders who have neither the time nor the resources to mount effective defenses for their clients in court cases. At times that leads to imprisonment for offenses that might otherwise not merit such punishment. But by and large, American society functions quite well because of this strongly held principle that no one is above the law.
As someone who is a fervent admirer of this American exceptionalism, I was rather dismayed by the recent news that Hunter Biden, the son of the president, had defied a Congressional subpoena. He had been summoned to appear before an oversight committee to answer questions about his business dealings. The younger Biden has accused Republicans of engaging in a politically motivated campaign to tie his father to his criminal indictments in an effort to damage his presidency. Even if he thinks his argument has merit, that cannot excuse his defiance.
Ironically, the person who issued the subpoena for Hunter Biden was none other than Republican Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio, who himself defied a subpoena to appear before the Jan. 6 Committee to answer questions about any involvement he might have had in the U.S. Capitol insurrection. His case was referred to the Congressional Ethics Committee but it is unclear if anything will come out of it.
That Rep. Jim Jordan felt he had the moral authority to subpoena someone speaks volumes about the toxic partisan environment we live in these days. Extreme political tribalism is giving license to some people to act with the kind of impunity that has done irreparable damage to many societies around the world.
Although this cultural transformation didn’t happen overnight, there is no question that former President Trump has played a huge role in accelerating it. Nowadays, Americans simply shrug when they witness behaviors that would have horrified them just a decade ago. This desensitization has occurred because through his blatant disregard for norms, the former president has single-handedly removed the shock factor from America’s socio-political landscape. It is beginning to feel as though there is no shame in anything anymore in America.
I have never personally subscribed to the idea that the people who voted for Trump did so mostly out of bigotry. I have longtime friends in various parts of the country who voted for him both in 2016 and 2020. Having known these friends for so long, I can say with a great deal of confidence that they are not racists. My sense is that a large portion of Trump voters based their choices on his policies. But, even his most ardent supporters have to be extremely careful about enabling his norm-breaking. A societal culture is one of those things that is almost impossible to rebuild once it is lost. Do we really want to get to a point where powerful people become so emboldened that they begin to ignore court orders, including, God forbid, Supreme Court rulings?
America’s hard-earned reputation as a law-and-order society should not be carelessly squandered. It is a hugely important competitive advantage, both politically and economically. The world’s best and brightest want to come here because they want to live in a society that is stable and will afford them the freedom to make maximum use of their talents. Our cultural respect for the sanctity of contracts makes our country an attractive investment destination for people from all corners of the globe. That is one of the main reasons America’s economy is the strongest and most dynamic in the world. That could all change quickly if the rest of the world begins to lose confidence in America as a bastion of stability.
I grew up in a society that used to function reasonably well. Unfortunately, the glue that held it together gradually frayed over time. Today, it has become highly dysfunctional socially, politically, and economically. That is why this corrosion of national culture in America worries me so much.