“We have met the enemy and… “

Like many, I wake up each morning and check online news sources for the latest read on the health of our nation. Like the addictive eater I am, I gobble up the latest ethical transgression, human rights abuse, crony favor, or governmental misbehavior. This menu of public service abuses sets the baseline for my thoughts, mood, and conversations for the day and I take satisfaction in thinking how right I am and how wrong so many of my fellow citizens are. It’s like scanning the country’s electronic medical record so I can keep up-to-date on its wellbeing.

But then I remember that it’s rarely the acute medical event that ends our lives. The heart attack, accident trauma, or stroke may bring us to the emergency room, but our lives end usually as the result of chronic deteriorations deep within us. It’s a medical metaphor just as applicable to the slow and invisible deterioration of our body politic.

The American hegemony will end not with a bang but with a whimper, and it won’t be due to any single administration. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” While we focus on the acute symptoms, we seem to be missing the chronic decay of the values that made us a great nation.

The metastatic creep of corruption in the halls of our legislatures and Congress as business interests overwhelm those of ordinary citizens, the rising chorus of xenophobic voices, the imposition of closed-door secrecy – often all-male – these are the invisible cancer cells taking root deep in our body politic. Unlike the warnings of acute symptoms, they can remain largely unnoticed until they kill us.

Beyond fighting the latest abuses of executive, legislative, and judicial power, we must also be vigilant and call out the subcutaneous deterioration of values that once made us a beacon to the world: the welcome we extend to the oppressed, the difference between public and self-service, our shared belief that fairly-regulated free-market capitalism offers everyone a chance to thrive, and our commitment to caring for those not equipped to make it on their own.

We’ll survive most of the acute health alerts we experience during our lives but it’s harder to see how we’ll survive the slow chronic deterioration of values and ethics that are eating away at the cellular structure of our democracy.

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