Commentary: Story of ‘Hamilton’ has meaning today

This piece originally appeared as an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune.


“Hamilton” fever has swept Salt Lake. The show lives up to its hype because it is so gosh-darn entertaining. But I believe the reason the show is a masterpiece is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ability to tell the 200-plus year-old story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr as a warning for us living and voting in today’s political climate.

Throughout the musical, Hamilton and Burr’s personal and political competition serves as motivation for each of them to do better and make the new nation great. Until it doesn’t.

At some point, Burr snaps and decides that he and Hamilton can’t exist as political opponents so he challenges him to a duel and, well, the rest is history. (Spoiler alert: Aaron Burr shoots and kills Alexander Hamilton.)

In the musical, after Burr kills Hamilton, he laments that he became the villain in history and ends by saying, “I was too young and blind to see … I should’ve known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”

I don’t pretend to blame today’s political polarization on President Trump. It existed long before he came into power and will exist long after he is gone. But Trump is the master at pitting people against each other, as it makes great entertainment. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders verified such, noting that Trump encourages competition and differences in opinion between his staff since he believes, “With that competition, you usually get the best results.”

While this competition might make some great reality TV, the competition hasn’t exactly resulted in “the best results.” In fact, it mostly has just resulted in an extremely high turnover rate of his staff. It has taken an already existing polarized political climate and made it worse. Congress is literally unable to do almost anything because the Republicans and Democrats refuse to compromise and listen to each other.

As much as I’d like this to be just a Washington problem, this polarization is alive and well here in Utah, among our politicians and the people. Luckily, we don’t resolve our political debates with duels anymore because, if we did, I’m pretty certain we’d all be dead. But duels with guns have turned into duels on social media and duels in legislative and executive committees and hearings.

For whatever reason, we’ve stopped allowing political competition to motivate us to do better for our state and our country, and instead we are at a stalemate, with our guns drawn, unwilling to compromise.

After observing the state Legislature this past session, I think our state lawmakers occasionally let party and pride get in the way of meaningful dialogue and change. That isn’t to say that our elected officials don’t have good intentions or don’t want the best for Utah. I believe they do. But even well-intentioned and brilliant politicians let pride get the best of them at times — e.g. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The good news is, as we see from our history books and hit musicals, these problems have existed for a very long time. Some of the root of the issue just comes from human nature. There’s no “fixing” that.

But I think we as a people can do better and doing better doesn’t mean constant duels, where we refuse to drop the gun and we are quick to pull the trigger. If we really want to make America great again, we — citizens and elected officials alike — have to swallow some of our pride and listen to what others have to say. At some point, we have to realize that the country is wide enough for both Republicans and Democrats and everyone in between.

Britny Mortensen is a second-year law student at the University of Utah and a legislative intern at Alliance for a Better Utah.

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