The USA at 246
The Nation is unusually divided and melancholy on its birthday.
Some excerpts from editorials reflecting on our national holiday.
David Ignatius, WaPo (“Nearly every American has a foreboding the country they love is losing its way“):
What does our national portrait look like on this Independence Day? Many of us see an angry, traumatized face, rather than the radiant glow of the Founders. That’s the odd thing about this hyperpartisan moment: Nearly every American, whatever their political perspective, has a foreboding that the country they love is losing its way.
How great is the danger of national decline? The Pentagon’s in-house think tank, which has the mysterious name “Office of Net Assessment,” commissioned a study of the problem by Michael J. Mazarr, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp. It was just published, under the title, “The Societal Foundations of National Competitiveness.” It’s hardly upbeat summer reading, but it can be downloaded free online, and it’s well worth the time.
Mazarr’s disturbing conclusion is that America is losing many of the seven attributes he believes are necessary for competitive success: national ambition and will; unified national identity; shared opportunity; an active state; effective institutions; a learning and adaptive society; and competitive diversity and pluralism.
Let’s start with American ambition and confidence, once our most notable trait. “Writers and scholars alike … have argued that the spirit of adventurousness, experimentation and determination to remake the future have all ebbed in the American character,” Mazarr writes.
Part of America’s DNA is the idea that our problems are fixable. I’m still in that party of optimists. But I found Mazarr’s conclusions chilling. When countries begin to fail, he argues, “it is a negative-feedback loop, a poisonous synergy.” The energy that could reverse decline becomes sapped by mistrust and misinformation. Some people get so angry they want to burn the house down and start over.
We’re not at that cataclysmic point yet. I see positive signs in the slow but growing Republican willingness to challenge Donald Trump, and in the broad, bipartisan anger at the extremism of recent Supreme Court decisions. But bad things can happen to good countries, as our modern history shows.
The American character was once easy to define. We were a young, optimistic nation, fusing “one out of many,” as the Latin phrase engraved on our coins puts it. Wherever Americans had come from, they embraced the aspiration for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” written in the Declaration of Independence. May it ever be so.
Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, NYT (“These Truths We Hold—and Share“):
The heart does not exactly swell with patriotic pride this Independence Day, as the gut absorbs one dizzying, disorienting blow after the next. Our sense of who we are, our very identity as Americans, feels assaulted and violated. Amid profound, painful regression on issue after issue, we are left gasping for breath.
Our nation seems more irreparably divided than ever before in my lifetime, barreling down a parallel path, perhaps, to the one our forebearers traveled in the 1850s.
What we do now matters urgently. And the American identity that we still share matters too, not least because it must inform and inspire a common effort, across our differences, to find our way out and forward. I believe we still can agree on a set of ideas — values and aspirations — enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, 246 years on.
In our founding, I see flawed genius. In the declaration we celebrate, I see a statement of purpose. In our Constitution, I see our founders entrusting each generation to fix what the preceding one was unwilling to repair.
Our founders bequeathed to us something radical, something unprecedented: the tools with which to build a multiracial, multiethnic, pluralist democracy that extends the privilege of American identity to all.
My love of America — of the American idea — is unwavering. This laboratory of liberty is worth saving, worth improving.
But I fear we are mired in a culture of absolutism and tearing ourselves apart at the seams.
Everything right now, it seems, is black or white, all or nothing, perfect or unacceptable. Every venue has become a theater for performatively asserting our own virtue or righteousness, or for denying someone else’s. The so-called microaggressions keep getting smaller, the disproportionate penalties bigger. Nuance and complexity, let alone compromise, are nowhere to be found. In their place is a pervasive, paralyzing cynicism. And in turn, our extreme challenges remain extremely unsolved.
Even among those with whom we largely agree, we’ve normalized intolerance and incivility. Among those with whom we disagree, we shame and cancel. We dehumanize and demonize.
Max Boot, WaPo (“American democracy is broken. Here’s how to fix it.“):
As we celebrate the Fourth of July, views of the Founding Fathers are more polarized than ever before. Some progressives want to tear down their monuments, because so many of the Founders were slave-holders, and they created a political system that denied political rights to women and minorities. Most conservatives, by contrast, still view the Founders as demigods and seek to squelch any criticism of them in public schools — promoting a spirit of conformity utterly alien to a founding generation that joyously engaged in never-ending disputation.
More than that, conservative jurists who extol the theory of “originalism” insist that the only way to interpret the Constitution is according to the way the Founders themselves viewed it. The Supreme Court has just upheld abortion restrictions and struck down gun restrictions based on the dubious claim to be channeling the Constitution’s drafters, even though many historians disagree with the right-wing interpretations.
Is there a sensible middle ground between vituperation and veneration of the Founders? Yes. We should acknowledge their manifold faults, while also paying tribute to their still-radical vision of a world in which everyone has an “unalienable” right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Above all, we must vindicate their desire to create a “more perfect Union” to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”
Matt Labash (“Happy(?) Fourth of July“):
Many will be drinking harder than usual this Fourth. For though we’ve made it to yet another national birthday (our 246th, we’re getting up there – might be due for assisted living soon), some people seem to think we don’t have many more ahead of us. Not as a unified country, anyway. Not with all the division and rancor and vengefulness and brinkmanship, and even occasional violence. Trends writers seem to enjoy kicking around talk of potential civil war. (Which admittedly, is sexier than writing about spiking supermarket prices.) Or at the very least, they suggest our nation might bisect itself. The Red Gang over here, the Blue Gang over there. While I’m not exactly an optimist by nature, I think America, as heavily armed as we are, is too obese and physically inactive to start shooting at each other and meaning it for sustained periods of time. Thank God for Netflix and fatty foods – lethargy and bloat might be our best insurance policy.
As an acutely disillusioned conservative who lives in a Trumpy county in a blue state (Maryland), I’m used to treading water in crosscurrents. And you know what? It’s fine. It’s doable. In fact, we’ve been doing it for 246 years, we just didn’t have as many professional windbags convincing us that we’re doomed. And by the way, we are doomed if we think we are. Which is why we have to stop thinking we are.
America is not perfect, and never was during whatever imaginary period you’re romanticizing from a past that never existed. What we’ve always had going for us is that unlike plenty of other countries, we can work through that, and have. Which is not to say it’s easy work. But too many now seem to think we’re entitled to a work stoppage, which, sorry, is deeply un-American.
I’m old enough to remember the long celebration surrounding the Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence but young enough to have no real personal memory of the dreary period shortly before it. The nation had recently endured the bitterness and divisiveness of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal but they didn’t impact me much. So the “Bicentennial Minutes” and gimmicks like the Dallas Cowboys adding a red stripe to their helmets and the Bicentennial quarters and the Jefferson $2 bill seemed like a big deal.
We’re just four years away from our Sestercentennial. Aside from not having nearly as good a ring to it, things seem much worse. Some of the op-eds above offer solutions to heal our divided nation but none strike me as feasible.
We’ve certainly gone through worse. In many ways, the decade before the Bicentennial was more bitter—and certainly more violent—than this one. And, of course, we had a Civil War which lasted four years and killed some 620,000 young men—a quarter of the population.
Like Labash, I don’t think we’re going to see a repeat of that. Nor, alas, do I see a way to resolve the standoff and bring the country together.