Our United States of (Political) Dissatisfaction

In these divisive times, we’d all be wise to remember that a general, society-wide state of dissatisfaction at the “current state of affairs” is strong evidence of a free society.

This past July, a most unusual gathering took place—one featuring an exceptionally encouraging rapprochement. The event in question (chronicled here) was the Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies in Provo, Utah.

Pluralism in Practice

In a refreshing display of cooperation and goodwill, the story related, “legal scholars, LGBT advocates, journalists, and concerned Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders [grappled] over court cases, questions about higher education and journalistic fairness, and—surprise!—common feelings of vulnerability.”

But it was the final line in the piece that held a gem of a takeaway. Elizabeth Clark, the conference organizer and the associate director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU Law School, observed:

“These discussions illustrate what pluralism looks like in practice. It’s hard and messy, and no one may end up perfectly satisfied, but it’s a crucial part of the American project.”

“…no one may end up perfectly satisfied, but it’s a crucial part of the American project.”

We live in a country where, every day, vastly different perspectives are spoken and argued for, freely and openly (less freely and openly, sadly, in some settings). It’s proof positive that we all don’t, and won’t, agree on everything—or, for that matter, anything.

And that “crucial part” might rightly be called “The American Agreement.” We live in a country where, every day, vastly different perspectives are spoken and argued for, freely and openly (less freely and openly, sadly, in some settings). It’s proof positive that we all don’t, and won’t, agree on everything—or, for that matter, anything.

Which, in turn, leads to the crux of it: in a country like ours, by definition, no one and no group will be completely satisfied.

The Virtues of Dissatisfaction 

By the very nature of the freedom that undergirds this grand experiment of ours, no one gets everything they want. The ideal state, when you stop to consider, is that everyone is dissatisfied, and to a greater or lesser extent (depending on who’s in power, presumably…).

And that’s okay. Better than okay, actually. It’s the crowning quality of a free society.

In fact, at the risk of getting a little too punny, one could accurately describe our collective mindsets as “The United States of Dissatisfaction.”

In fact, our freedom as a nation is only in serious jeopardy when one (usually small) group of people is satisfied and does get most or all of what they want, leaving another far larger group out and with most or all of their wishes ignored. Which, not surprisingly, is a pretty accurate description of most totalitarian/authoritarian regimes throughout history.

The mere fact that dissatisfaction is a more-or-less constant state for all our society’s stakeholders is proof that our system is working to a large extent for everyone. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s strong evidence of societal health.

Yet, if there’s one permanent fixture of our system, it’s that it’s cyclical: You may be down now, but the pendulum will swing back your way. It always has and always will.

Faint consolation, to be sure, if your side is out of power, leaving things more unbalanced than seems “fair.” Yet, if there’s one permanent fixture of our system, it’s that it’s cyclical: You may be down now, but the pendulum will swing back your way. It always has and always will.  

It’s only natural to want to lobby for one’s own parochial interests. In fact, the Founders had no illusions that their fellow citizens would ever (or even rarely) act in service of the “common good.”

Far more wisely, they assumed—not that it was much of a stretch, given the veritable mountain of empirical historical evidence to bolster that assumption—their fellow man would do as people have done since the beginning of time: Look out for Number One. Cynical? Perhaps. Realistic? Unquestionably.

As such, they designed this unique new republic to ensure two things (among many):

  • Every citizen had the right to hold, espouse, fight for, and even have a genuine opportunity to manifest those parochial interests.
  • They constructed a nation based on the rule of law, and with checks and balances throughout, to prevent any one faction, no matter how “well-intentioned”—heck, especially those—from being able to force their vision on their fellow citizens.

Have we always been true to those ideals? Definitely not. Are we closer to their full realization today than we’ve ever been in the history of our country? Absolutely.

So, the next time you lament a “win” by the other side or celebrate one by yours, assuming it came about through the rule of law (as messy as that can sometimes be), know that all is as it should be. And yes, that the tables will turn again at some point.