Every year at Christmastime, news sites reprint the touching letter from a little girl, Virginia O’Hanlon, asking about Santa Claus and the columnist’s reassuring, fatherly response. He doesn’t smack her with the hard fact that Santa is a fictional creation. He points toward a deeper truth about our shared celebrations and the web of fond memories that bind together generations of children, parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents.
As we celebrate this Independence Day, we desperately need to remember our own shared beliefs and ideals in hopes they will bind together our divided nation. Our shared ideals and common identity as Americans should bind us. Today, alas, they are too frayed to do the job. Some think it is a fraud even to stress those commonalities.
It is not. Our shared aspirations and common identity are our country’s best hope for the future. And our history should be a source of hope, as well as somber reflection.
Those ideals are not “our country, right or wrong.” They are not “our country with an airbrushed past.” Neither are they “our country as a relentless record of evil and oppression, at home and abroad.”
Rather, they are “our country as it strives to become better, to celebrate its accomplishments, to overcome its historical wrongs, to heal its lasting wounds and, ultimately, to achieve the ideals set before us in the Declaration of Independence and made concrete in our Constitution.” Whether our ancestors came over on the Mayflower, a slave ship, or a boat from Europe, escaping the Nazis, those are our shared ideals, but only if we embrace them.
What are those ideals? What are those accomplishments, incomplete as they still are? They are the promise that all men and women should be treated equally, allowed to speak freely and assemble peaceably, worship as they choose, permit others to worship, speak, and assemble as they choose, vote for whichever candidates they prefer, and live in safety, governed by laws made by the representatives they choose in fair elections. Those goals are grounded in tolerance and mutual forbearance, which are essential for a cohesive society where people come from different backgrounds and hold different beliefs.
Familiar as these homilies are, we need to repeat and defend them in troubled times when most Americans have lost faith in their institutions and the officials who lead them. They think those institutions and their leaders are biased and self-serving, that they protect themselves and other insiders as they grow rich together at the public trough, that they cover up for wrongdoing by friends and punish it in enemies, that once-respected news organizations have become active partisans and unreliable reporters, that “experts” are often partisan hacks, and that we are governed less by laws than by regulations promulgated, enforced, and adjudicated by unelected bureaucrats. It’s a long list.
This sour view is not wrong. It is the lump of coal in young Virginia O’Hanlon’s Christmas stocking.
Nor is it hyperbole to say that public trust has evaporated. That’s the grim conclusion revealed in public opinion poll after poll. In 1972, even as the Watergate scandal was being exposed, about half the public still trusted the government “always or most of the time.” Those numbers ranged from 66% for conservative Republicans to 44% for liberal Democrats. Moderates fell in between. Those 1972 numbers were already well below those from the 1950s and early 1960s, dominated by a population that had suffered through the Great Depression and World War II.
The erosion of public trust has continued apace over the past half-century, interrupted only by a brief “rally round the flag” effect after 9/11. By 2022, trust in government had reached new lows. The highest confidence came from liberal Democrats, who controlled the White House and the administrative state. But even among liberal Democrats, only a quarter still trusted the government. Republican numbers were far lower: 13% for moderate/liberal Republicans and only 7% for conservative Republicans.
It is difficult to maintain a stable democracy with mistrust so pervasive. Worse yet, those public perceptions aren’t mass lunacy. Our institutions have earned their low marks and will have a hard time restoring confidence.
The public’s mistrust had been reinforced by four profound developments in our political parties and governing institutions.
The first is that U.S. politics has become increasingly ideological, with that ideology taking on the character of fundamentalist religious beliefs. Those who differ from us are no longer the “loyal opposition.” They are apostates disseminating evil ideas. That’s yet another reason we see losing candidates refusing to accept the verdict of the electorate. They claim they were defeated only by fraud perpetuated by unscrupulous political enemies.
Second, the country is increasingly divided into self-enclosed groups who see their particular tribal identity as more important than their shared American identity. Those fissures are painfully clear on college campuses, where the fundamental division is between racial, ethnic, and sexual-identity groups who see themselves as “the oppressed” (and band together politically as such) and everyone else who is labeled as “the oppressor.” It is bizarre, really, how the child of a lawyer and a schoolteacher from a middle-class suburb could be seen as an oppressor – and convinced to see himself that way. But it is commonplace. The more progressive the campus, the more common it is. Meanwhile, the “oppressed,” who usually come from comfortable, middle-class homes, see American history as a trail of tears crushing their group.
This effort to divide Americans and set groups against each other is a powerful movement led by left-wing academics, public intellectuals, and private foundations. The worst example is the shoddy, politically-driven work of the New York Times’ “1619 Project.”
Third, the cohesion of American society is fraying as its family structures weaken (more children out of wedlock, more divorces, more single-parent families) and as fewer people join clubs and other voluntary institutions that make up a vibrant civil society. Edmund Burke called these institutions the “little platoons” of society, which join together and make up larger brigades. Alexis de Tocqueville made a similar point. Today, they would weep.
Finally, Americans are much less willing to proclaim the traditional value of self-reliance, preferring to increase their demands for government assistance and subsidies. These demands and the scope of government programs have ballooned since the Great Society legislation of the mid-1960s, even as the quality of government services has declined. It is also increasingly clear, though rarely discussed among intellectuals, that Great Society programs have steadily undermined family structures in poor communities, especially African-American ones.
So, there’s a lot to worry about, a lot to be angry about.
But those dark shadows are not the whole picture or even most of it. There is much to celebrate, too. Ours is a country that sustained the Union and wiped out slavery in a great civil war. Ours is a country that has welcomed millions upon millions of tired, poor, and hungry, yearning to breathe free. Ours is a country that, yes, allowed Jim Crow to fester for decades but then abolished it over a half-century ago. Ours is a country that, despite its support for some noxious dictators, has done more than any other country in history to foster democracy around the world.
Ours is a country whose citizens still believe, overwhelmingly, in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the document that gave birth to the Fourth of July celebration. Our is still a country that, despite efforts to divide us, still strives to achieve its national motto, “Out of many, one.”
Those values are embedded in America’s distinctive kind of patriotism. It is not the “blood and soil” nationalism of 19th-century Europe. It is an inclusive civic patriotism, embracing all its citizens and those on the path to becoming one. The family from Vietnam, now in Louisiana, or from South Asia, now in South Carolina, is as American as the family descended from Puritans in Massachusetts.
You don’t have to turn a blind eye to America’s troubles to celebrate its achievements. Yes, Virginia, America’s heart and soul are great, and so are its achievements.