Today, we celebrate what we view as the birth of the United States of America. Colonists on these shores declared their independence from Great Britain on this day two hundred forty-seven years ago. Having asserted their independence as a country, they needed to fight a war to secure it and thirteen years—how poetically appropriate!—to craft the outlines of a viable system of governance. The history-making Constitution of 1789 was soon amended by the Bill of Rights in 1791. Thirteen years later two additional perfecting amendments had been added to the Constitution.
That Constitution of 1804 and its interpretation by the Supreme Court remained the law of the land until the unresolved issue of slavery led to civil war. The victory of Union forces over the insurrectionist slave-holding states in 1865 was followed by the adoption of Amendments Thirteen, Fourteen, and Fifteen, which ushered in a more democratic American government. Additional amendments have been made to the Constitution to expand democracy or to improve governmental operations. (Amendments Eighteen and Twenty-one are exceptions, of course, representing a fit of insanity and a national recovery therefrom.)
This brings us to today, when we would like to celebrate the nation’s two-hundred-forty-seven-year run without ambivalence. There will, of course, be ceremonies, speeches, concerts, fireworks, and picnics this July Fourth. But the thoughtful among us cannot but see the United States of America as being at an inflection point. Whereas some are celebrating expanded rights for themselves and similarly situated citizens obtained at the expense of others, many view the historic expansion of American liberty as facing a decline that may be difficult to reverse.
Although it seems especially intense in 2023, the nation is no stranger to conflict. Fortunately, conflict only once led to organized armed conflict. In the best of times, we have managed to compromise and move forward, sometimes in very small steps. There have been reverses—one thinks of the paroxysms of McCarthyism, for example—but the country has tended to recover from its ill-conceived excesses. Now, however, compromise is often viewed as surrender, and we all too often approach public policy decisions with a take-no-prisoners attitude. In a country once known for citizens’ propensity to band together in organizations formed for the improvement of society, we now find organizations of whatever ilk, including those of government itself, viewed with suspicion, if not outright hatred.
Addressing the nation in a Labor Day poem I wrote more than a decade ago, I penned the line “Where oh where did you go wrong?” There is no single answer to my question. We went wrong when Milton Friedman asserted that the corporation’s only obligation is to its shareholders. We went wrong when Ronald Reagan declared war on public-sector unions. We went wrong when Phyllis Schlafy almost single-handedly torpedoed the Equal Rights Amendment. We went wrong when Christian pastors chose to pursue political power rather than spiritual power. We went wrong when we stopped using antitrust legislation to curtail corporate power. We went wrong when Rupert Murdoch created a “news” channel that belied its name. We went wrong when the Federalist Society was created to capture the judiciary for corporate America. We went wrong when Evangelicals were convinced that abortion was evil in order to win their political allegiance to a wider agenda not in their best interest. We went wrong when Bill Clinton abandoned the downtrodden for legislation supported by their enemies. We went wrong when we fought wars with vague objectives and poor prospects for success. We went wrong when we let a Republican senator deny a Supreme Court nomination to a Democratic president. We went wrong when we elected a sociopath as president and unleashed the worst impulses that had lay dormant in the populace. We went wrong when we confused our own rights with our ability to curtail the rights of others. We continue to go wrong in believing that the effects of racism are no longer with us, even as racism persists.
One could build a long list of societal changes that would move our country toward the ideals we used to espouse—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, respect for all human beings, freedom to use one’s body as one sees fit, valuing public education to benefit not only individuals but also society at large, freedom from want, decent housing for all, and freedom from oppression by the rich and powerful. That list could be expanded. Generally, we need a newfound concern for society and a more modest concern for the individual.
Fortunately, the laundry list of projects that might seem to imply need not dismay us. What is needed, on one hand, is our support of institutions and organizations that make positive contributions to society. We need to offer our money and our help in any way we can. Second, we need to support the Democratic Party, as the Republican Party has become an instrument of destruction of what is best about America. Vote Democrat. Support Democrats. Argue for Democrats. If possible, run for public office yourself. The elected school board member of today can become the member of Congress in future years. So much of the change needed in this country can only be effected by Democratic legislators in sufficient numbers that their legislative agenda cannot be blocked by Republicans. We can hope that Democratic success will either result in reform of the Republican Party or in its replacement by a new party committed to traditional American values.
Some will find my analysis here obscenely partisan. I offer it without embarrassment. The Republican Party, financed as it is by billionaires who hide behind innocuous-sounding lobbying groups, is the greatest threat to our democracy.
The Great Seal proclaims the United States to be a new order of the ages (Novus ordo seclorum). We should be proud of that aspiration, even though we sometimes seem to fall prey to the vices of other societies in other times. Let us celebrate this day what our nation has already accomplished and pledge to help it “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Happy Independence Day.