E pluribus unum.

“The economy, stupid.” – James Carville.

In 1992, James Carville, then a strategist in Bill Clinton’s successful run for the White House that year, coined a pithy catechism for the campaign, to keep the candidate and the workers on message. It consisted of three parts:

  • Change vs. more of the same
  • The economy, stupid
  • Don’t forget healthcare

The second of these penetrated the national conversation then and since to such an extent that it has been deemed a snowclone.

Fast forward to the present day. Let’s say you’re one of an apparent minority of Americans who hasn’t voted early (90 million have so far; two-thirds of the total tally for 2016). You’re going to vote today; or perhaps you’re old school and planning to vote, in person, on the day, November 3rd. Channeling your inner Carville, what would might be the metric you could use to make your choices? Here’s a candidate, appropriately old school:

e pluribus unum, (stupid).

(you’re free to retain or drop “stupid,” to taste; it was of course, idiosyncratic to Mr. Carville, who spoke that way in order to burnish his brand as someone not merely of Arcadian-heritage but as “the Ragin’ Cajun.”).

E pluribus unum is Latin, but most LOTRW readers will remember having learned at some point in their upbringing that its meaning, though open to interpretation, generally speaking connotes “out of many, one,” or “one out of many,” or “one from many.” Chances are good your exposure to the phrase came not from a Latin class (you’re not that old school) but from American History. Once the quasi-official motto of the United States, E pluribus unum has been supplanted in that role by “In God we trust,” but it still appears on the Great Seal of the United States:

The Great Seal of the United States

Why should this motto be especially apropos, or in any way helpful as a voting guide, in this particular voting round? At first inspection, the phrase might seem too vague – inadequate to the complexity and variety of the issues that count.

Start with the four biggest concerns: the pandemic (and related concerns about healthcare and the education of our young people); the economy (for most, this is about jobs, not just the financial markets); systemic racism (that has dogged our country since its founding); and, finally, America’s (declining) standing in the world.

These are urgent, weighty matters. And there are others. The country and the world face resource needs; in particular we have to keep the food, water, and energy coming. The recent spate of natural disasters – the horrific wildfires and the seemingly endless train of hurricanes, the Iowa derecho, and more – is worrisome whether or not the disasters stem from or were aggravated by climate change. Meantime, environment and ecosystems services are being continually degraded.

By themselves, any of these poses a big national lift – each stupefyingly complex, and each of a different nature, unyielding to any “silver bullet.” So how can they possibly be distilled into a single catchphrase that has any utility?

Well, here’s the reality. Increasingly, Americans are coming to recognize that the biggest challenge we face is cross-cutting: the breakdown of trust and the growing polarization of our society (apologies; this single link is only one of the multitude out there – but then, this is not a new reality, merely an affirmation of an older one. Chances are good you’ve been reading and listening to material along these lines for months or years now)

Enter e pluribus unum. There are reasons for the long-standing popularity of this phrase across the span of US history. To mention just two: it has served to remind everyone of our different geographic origins. It captured the idea that the people of the thirteen colonies, and ultimately fifty states and territories are indeed united. Historically, whenever we’ve faced challenges (the World War II pipeline from the previous LOTRW post provides just a single example) we’ve pulled together. We can and will do so again.

Behind this is an idea which is mere conjecture (per the Darwin quote on the LOTRW masthead) but perhaps contains seeds of a law of social science, with something of the same status accorded Newton’s laws of motion:

  • if we take up societal challenges separately; and attempt to force political solutions on each other, postponing much needed reconciliation until after we’ve won our political victory, we’ll fail in each and every effort, all while ratcheting up the bitter polarization and animus dividing our people.
  • If instead, we make building relationships, trust, equity, and inclusion our primary aim (while maintaining rather than assimilating diversity), there will be no challenge we cannot overcome.  

A bit wordy – not that catchy – but e pluribus unum isn’t a bad distillation. And we all have the sense that if we could through some miracle come together after the election, then we’d have taken a big first step towards solving the problems that face us.

Note well! Some reading this post might say it shows a particular political bias. That’s not the intent. The desire for unity is not confined to either major party, Democratic or Republican, left or right, red or blue. Members of either would tell you that’s not only a desired goal but a necessary one. The disagreement comes in how such unity might be achieved. So you and I, in making our choices, have to dig a bit deeper, look at the candidates, at every level of the ticket, from top to bottom, and ask how much attention each candidate is devoting to this goal in his/her rhetoric, whether the rhetoric matches action, whether the commitment if newfound or lifelong.

If we do that, a miracle will indeed occur!  But it doesn’t lie in the direction you might think. It’s the effect on us. It’s not so much that if we all think like this we’ll elect a certain right set of candidates. Rather it is that if a hundred-some million of us think like this that shared mindset will empower us to transform America.

An important final amendment and rephrasing. One serious shortcoming to e pluribus unum is that throughout much of the American experience, the “many” embedded in pluribus falls short of being the necessary big tent including everyone, on an equal footing. Originally, “many” embraced a variety – but only of white male property owners. It excluded males who owned no real property. It excluded women. It excluded slaves. It excluded LGBTQ. These exclusions have at best been painfully and only partially removed one by one over the years. Indelible stains of age-old inequities remain.

Perhaps a better phrase might be

Ex omnibus, unum: out of them all, one.

If you haven’t already done so, please vote, and let democracy’s miracle occur.

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