Hamilton, Cancel Culture, and the 2020 Election

Cancellations have always happened, with historic figures literally fighting to the death and being remembered or forgotten based on their reputations. Or as Hamilton: An American Musical puts it: “You have no control: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

Whatever criticisms about historical accuracy can be nitpicked about Hamilton, the major plot points are accurate. Alexander Hamilton canceled his own political career by writing the Reynolds Pamphlet. Then Aaron Burr got his own political career canceled by dueling and killing Hamilton. No one is safe from cancel culture, but can we learn to live with it? Should we?

In just the five years between the premiere of the musical in 2015 and the release of #Hamilfilm in 2020, Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda have gone from enduring calls for cancellation from right-wingers offended by non-white actors portraying America’s Founders as complex and flawed — to calls for cancellation by left-wingers who accuse Lin-Manuel of “whitewashing” the American Revolution like a neoliberal apologist.

In response to Tracy Chapman’s nuanced reflections about the latter controversy, Lin-Manuel responded:

Could reasonable people learn from Lin-Manuel’s humble example by allowing artists and leaders space to advance progressive narratives and causes as best they can, recognizing the limits of power and context, while also continuing to discuss and build upon their efforts, rather than simply tearing down anyone who hasn’t already surpassed impossible standards? Isn’t that how we progress as a society?

For example, consider this quote from an “enlightenment” thinker who risked cancellation by conservatives of his era:

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In the context of cancel culture, the writer advocates canceling, or at least tailoring, outgrown laws and institutions. But in order for man(kind) to develop as manners and opinions change, would we cancel the boy?

Does this quote’s attribution to Thomas Jefferson changes its meaning? Are the words more or less true if we consider Jefferson to be a “barbarous ancestor” because of his role perpetuating slavery? Does he deserve any credit for his role establishing a country meant to keep pace with times ahead of his own, including by advancing human freedom alongside the progress of the human mind? Can we admire Jefferson for advancing democracy and religious liberty while also condemning his hypocrisies and failures to advance racial equality? What will we be canceled for hundreds of years from now when we’re the “barbarous ancestors”?

Human beings are inherently nuanced and flawed, but when we rush to judge everyone based on their worst mistakes — and without the possibility of redemption — we see no heroes and all villains. Maybe it’s more realistic to consider labeling actions or opinions, rather than people, as “good” or “bad,” and to be mindful of inner conflicts? We all want to be the heroes of our own stories, so we excuse or forgive our own mistakes while focusing on our best intentions.

But that’s not how we behave politically. Instead, we rush to end careers based on rumors or the oversimplification of complex decisions. In our search for “perfect” idols, we sift through candidates like we swipe through Tinder and reject them based on even the most superficial judgments. When “good enough” is never good enough, the goal becomes to cancel one’s opponent by any means necessary. As Burr tells Hamilton, “They don’t need to know me. They don’t like you.” Opportunists and their extremist enablers exploit raw emotions like fear and disgust to turn us against their opponents — or to turn us off from participating in the democratic process altogether.

I’m not saying we should forgive unforgivable evils by wasting yet another chance for redemption on men like Trump who rejoice in cruelty. But for the intellectually honest, the worst proof against Biden is that his good intentions sometimes missed the mark.

Anyone who’s been in the room where it happens knows that politics is messy, but messy compromises are often the only realistic way to make progress, even if steps forward are seen as “incremental.” The Constitution wasn’t everything Hamilton wanted, but he became one of its most vociferous proponents.

As Hamilton knew from having to decide between Jefferson or Burr, our elections often produce difficult choices (which will likely continue until ranked-choice voting disrupts our two-party system). But a difficult choice isn’t an excuse to throw away your shot. Rather, it’s a call to action to speak up about the best viable option and educate voters so they can make informed decisions.

The decision to vote for Joe Biden should be easy for any rational actor to make in 2020. Like Jefferson or Hamilton, Biden’s career has been about doing what was pragmatically progressive for his time — evolving as times changed but nevertheless taking risks on compromises and making incremental but tangible gains toward justice. Like Burr, Trump’s career has been about deflecting blame and sowing confusion — but when showing their true colors, Burr and Trump both proved to be selfish traitors.

It’s easy for ideologues to try to cancel Biden by cherry-picking past flaws, but they ignore all the hard work Biden and his staff have done to unite with his former rivals on the most progressive platform in party history. Biden isn’t complacent. After Trump’s failures to address our public health and economic crises, Biden is focused on building back better, beyond the hard-fought wins of the Obama years, with bold but practical plans to lead a new New Deal recovery, expand affordable healthcare to millions, and invest in clean energy and environmental justice. But Biden needs our help.

At its best, Hamilton is a reminder that history has its eyes on you, and we all have a role to play in using our voices and votes to advance the progressive causes of America’s “great unfinished symphony.” We should never be satisfied, but we aren’t helpless. Like Hamilton, we can each use our voices as powerful tools for change. So speak up and write like you’re running out of time. Because we are.

Stating an opinion shouldn’t mean we’re looking for a fight to the death; our opinions are often invitations for discussion or debate so that we can learn from each other. Yet when we feel threatened by cancel culture, we get defensive. Or worse, we’re tempted to follow Burr’s advice: “Talk less, smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” But silence in response to injustice is complicity and cowardice. Should we let the fear of unintended microaggressions distract us from uniting against overt macroaggressions? Or should we allow ourselves and each other the humility to listen and learn from our mistakes so that we can help allies grow instead of simply rushing to cancel them?

As in 1776, we have a choice in 2020 between a mad king and a chance to expand the “self-evident” truths of our Declaration to more Americans. To see the parallels, just look at the comments from Trump’s own supporters trying to cancel NPR because they thought tweets quoting the Declaration were criticisms about Trump. Meanwhile, Joe Biden would “restore the soul of our nation” by putting us back on the path of expanding liberty and justice for all, including women, immigrants, people with disabilities, and Native American, Black, Latinx, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and LGBTQ+ communities.

Our Founders designed our democracy to allow a bloodless revolution through an intellectual war for hearts, minds, and votes. Make no mistake: We are at war over the meaning of America and its future. Trump has made it clear with his incitement of violence and botched response to the pandemic that he will kill our friends and family to remind us of his love for money and power. Trump is relying on a billion-dollar disinformation campaign, foreign interference, and voter suppression to win again. Click-baiters and contrarians help Trump by making false equivalencies with Biden, so it’s up to rational and fair-minded people to counter disinfo in the media and social media. If we fail to defend ourselves, do we really want to respond to the next generation’s questions about why we canceled America with “but her emails” or “I just wasn’t inspired enough”?

When your time is up, will you have done enough? Will they tell your story? Or will you remove yourself from the narrative by making excuses from the sidelines? You may not live to see the glory, but will you gladly join the fight? Will you try to liberate America or simply abandon the web of challenges for fear that untangling some of the biggest knots holding us back will get you canceled for not doing enough to break others?

We can criticize the Founders and every other generation for falling short of our aspirations. But at the very least, we can acknowledge the progress we’ve made and fulfill our generation’s role in advancing just causes. In 2020, that means casting our ballots for the best viable option: Joe Biden. Our inability to reach all our goals in one stride shouldn’t silence us or deter us from voting for a real and necessary step in the right direction. So with my voice and my vote, I’m not throwing away my shot. Are you?

Written by

Working to save democracy. Formerly @ObamaWhiteHouse. Taught history in Lebanon. @OhioWesleyan & @Kennedy_School alum. Support @RankTheVoteOhio. Views mine.

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