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.
I have 4 granddaughters and maybe a 5th on the way. Giving up is not an option.
@OzarkHillbilly: I’ve got 11- and 13-year-old daughters and stepkids ranging from 18 to 22 and concur. I don’t see what the offramp is. The media bubble environment makes things harder than ever. But, again, we’ve made it through worse.
IMO, when two opposing sides are making similar claims, it would perhaps pay to examine what both sides have in common. In particular, what’s affecting them in their daily lives.
One thing is the great wage stagnation.
Facts don’t lie. Since the late 70s, wages have grown far less than inflation and productivity, while corporate profits and the personal fortunes of executives and others at the top have risen a lot more than productivity and inflation.
I think for a while the declining living standards were masked by the prevalence of two income families, as well as new products and services. But things are catching up now. Making enough money for a decent living is getting harder. If you go to college to get a better paying job, you’re saddled with decades of student debt.
I’d begin to look for solutions there.
@Kathy: It’s a pity then, that concentrated power and influence are specifically working to prevent solutions to problems that the common people have.
It’s worth remembering that the ideals we feel are at risk are the ideals that were in large part created by the founding of this nation. Yes, of course there were many other intellectuals around the world that helped develop the rights of man, but the USA is unique among countries in that is founded upon ideals rather than territory, religion or ethnicity. It is also worth remembering that the justly deserved remonstrations over our failure to live up to those ideals take place at all because of those newly created ideals themselves. Did the settlers treat the natives that had been living here for millennia in direct opposition to those ideals? Absolutely and, as a country we must do what we can to make it better. But at the time of the founding the “Right of Conquest” was universally held, all over the world, by all kinds of nations. The Europeans and Christians, yes, but also the Cherokee, the Ashanti, the Muslims, the Mongols, the Chinese, the Nipponese, the list is endless. What one nation could take from another by force of arms or trickery was theirs by right. It was the movement started by the natural philosophers during our founding that turned this from, “It is only right for the strong prey on the weak”, to “All people are worthy and should be treated with fairness and justice.”
But the battle never ends, and the enemies are never just the ones from without. There is a natural human tendency towards governance where the strong few take from the weak many, and the use of their governmental powers to enforce this hierarchy above all else. The Civil war was a great and terrible battle between governance representing America’s ideals against a governance representing everything opposed to those ideals. We won that battle to an extent, but it didn’t end. The anti-democratic side resurged in the former slave states and there it persists to a greater or lesser extent to this day, and it spreads further. But there is nothing new about the idealists having to fight anew, as this is not a war that can ever be won in some final and once and for all battle. Jefferson, horribly flawed and weak and petty, knew that each generation would be tasked with the same battle, although with the enemy constantly emerging on different fronts.
Maybe the national milestone is an opportunity. (BTW – starting now I’m lobbying for Quarter-millennial. Much pithier!) Through a year or so of build-up and the big day itself in 2026, maybe some well tuned promotion of national pride can get us closer to agreeing on WHAT American ideals are. Some prolonged exposure to the realities of our country’s founding, plus some marketing gimmicks, could conceivably move us toward Max Boot’s middle ground where we acknowledge the flawed nature of our forebears, while celebrating their radical vision for democracy.
We won’t agree on HOW to achieve our Founder’s vision – we’ve never agreed on HOW – but maybe we can get back to some agreement on what is worth fighting about for this country’s future.
The United States is not one continuous country, but four different countries that have existed in succession with a myth that they were one continuous things: colonization up to the rev war, the rev war to the civil war, civil war to the great depression, great depression to the present.
Each was based on a social contract that worked for a while but eventually failed as the people who originally negotiated it died off and left behind a nation of people who didn’t like the contract and had no loyalty to it since they were never involved in its creation. The contract eventually failed during a crisis and was replaced by a new contract more in keeping with how society had changed since the last time.
What we’re seeing now is the failure of the post-WWII social contract and various groups are fighting to dictate the terms of the new social contract for the fifth version of America. And this crisis will continue until there is a general consensus on what the new social contract should be.
The current fever that America is suffering has a long time to run its course. It would be easier if the current RW illiberalism were confined to the Baby Boom generation, but it extends to the eldest millennials, so death won’t resolve that problem soon. On the left, the illiberalism, is greatest among younger generations, so that contribution to our problems may fester for a long time.
It’s hard not to be pessimistic. The electorate is in a blame anyone mode. The leading R presidential candidates are either a seditionist or one using the Orban playbook and the other possibles are nearly as bad. While on the Dem side, the party is frozen, waiting for the incumbent to decide what his future will be. While the party fumbles around trying to find an action plan consistent with its identity.
Yesterday James used in a subhead the line about killing your parents, then asking for mercy as orphans. Republicans set out fifty years ago to divide the country, joined thirty years ago by FOX news. That we are “divided and melancholy” is the desired outcome of a lot of money and hard work.
I agree. And the bulk of the responsibility is on their side. But not all of it. There has been a lot of triumphalism, arrogance and scorn on our side. Mea culpa as to that. Looking back, a bit more patience and tolerance and a gentler touch (not my strengths, exactly) would have perhaps softened the right-wing backlash and slowed the feedback loop.
@Scott F.: Thumbs-up for “Quarter-Millenial” which is optimistic that we could make it to a millennial, I think.
Seems fitting to celebrate the 4th of July with a mass shooting. God bless the USA.
@Argon: Indeed! Then again, when have those who hold power and wealth ever routinely been concerned for the conditions of the working classes–barring said working classes showing up at the door with torches and pitchforks?
Ignatius and I don’t seem to have grown up in the same types of neighborhoods. My take is that we may have narrowly escaped “burn down the house” during the antiwar era because of the synergy of the fact that the burn it down contingent was small, Marxist/socialist, and predominantly black. A previous burn it down-esque moment coinciding with the rise of the Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia–and I would suggest that it successfully burned the place down for almost a century by creating the conditions where Congress allowed the actual nullification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments in creating the Jim Crow South. And, finally, I would see the highly partisan calls for a “new Constitutional Convention” as another burn it down moment that has been ebbing and flowing since Limbaugh graced the airwaves–although this last moment is the most optimistic of the three in that it potentially allows for a diversity of opinion and the promise of a genuine (???) and workable (???) social contract. As always, YMMV.
I opened the Max Boot piece (copy the title and search in your browser to avoid the paywall) because I’m always thrilled to see when somebody can claim “here’s how to do it.” If Max Boot isn’t the king of political vaporware, I’m open to nominations. The last sentence of the section Joyner pasted had more substance than the remainder of the article. wherein Boot outlines the “tools” (“processes” actually) to fix America.
The whole “malice toward none and charity for all” thing, while very Christian (or is that christianist?), may have been a mistake. As may have been true for fighting the war in the first place.
@Paine: I can’t upvote that because it’s too painfully accurate.
@Paine: Fwk! I was so hoping you were just being snarky. 🙁
Now the list of baddies is expanding, you have foreign actors, Putin and others, on the case now too.
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
Check the open forum.
@Dave Schuler: “malaise” actually came after the bicentennial.
The speech that President Jimmy Carter delivered that was tagged “The Malaise Speech” was on July 15, 1979. The word malaise was not in the speech.