Happy Independence Day, America! And Happy July 4th everywhere! Except Russia—they call this month “Oktemberly.” Happy Oktemberly 9th, communists! Long live the Czar!
I was prepared to write a sobering piece for today—a rumination on all the ways that we’ve gone wrong in recent years. We’ve allowed our elections to be hijacked by powerful monied interests. We’ve permitted our representatives to design their voting districts to protect them from political challenge. We’re hopelessly polarized, and Jon Stewart was allowed to retire. There is a lot we have to work on, frankly.
But then I realized that there’s also a lot to remain hopeful about.
Despite our differences—despite the fact that Republicans see the world one way (“grubby poor blacks”) and Democrats another (“cartoon rich men”)—there’s one thing we all still have in common. There’s one belief that we all hold self-evident, one value that lies at the core of our civic religion—and thus a single, simple hope that we can still come together and make our country a better place:
We all think America is terrible.
It used to be that liberals had a consistently pessimistic take on American society. They believed that inequality and unfairness were endemic to every institution of industrial capitalism, from the private ways of family life to the routinized dehumanization employed by business. They resented the power of religion. They probably worshipped the devil. Only radical change, they believed, could upset the inherent injustice of our experience and liberate the human spirit to achieve greatness and expressive craftwork.
Conservatives, on the other hand, were remarkably, even aggressively, optimistic about the American promise. Republicans consistently nominated sunny leaders (Reagan), war heroes (George H. W. Bush; Bob Dole; John McCain), and useful idiots (George W. Bush). They wrapped themselves in the flag and played Lee Greenwood way too much. The United States, in their estimation, was a shining example of capitalist freedom and the last true hope of humanity. It had all the best weapons.
However, the dummy Bush messed everything up. And the Great Recession turned everything upside down.
Liberals suddenly felt confirmed in their view that capitalist system was rigged. Democrats nominated hope’s veritable representative on Earth for the Presidency, preferring Obama’s confident disposition to Clinton’s conspiratorial, downer demeanor. Conservatives, feeling betrayed by mainstream Republican politicians and angry about a black man stealing their hope, became irate. They first miscast a genuinely honest Senator, and then a fundamentally decent Mormon family man, to articulate their anger at the corrupt nature of the society they suddenly felt themselves trapped within.
Then they nominated a man who was the embodiment of juvenile, pessimistic, screw-you rage. A man who asserted over and over that America was in decline and only he could make it great again. A man who had been sued hundreds of times and was caught bragging about sexually harassing women. None of that mattered, of course—in fact, it solidified their belief in him. If anyone was going to grab America by the groin and squeeze it into shape, it was going to be Trump.
This has made liberals (and most centrists) fairly despondent. But it has also made many conservatives uneasy. How can we improve our country when the President seems intent on violating every sense of decency, most major norms of public office, and the Constitutional requirement not to accept gifts from foreign governments? How can we trust our representatives when they prioritize gutting the Office of Congressional Ethics, or throwing millions off health insurance rolls? When is the First Lady going to speak to Donald about cyberbullying? Did she get misunderstand what she was supposed to do and wind up encouraging him to harass people online?
But there’s a silver lining to our current chaos. These days, we ALL think America sucks. We all feel frustrated, depressed, sick, and disgusted, for one reason or another. Any person you meet, right or left, young or old, rich or poor, has something to complain about. Nowadays, it’s as easy to slip into a conversation about government policy and the perfidy of politicians as it is to talk about our children or the weather. It’s the new American way, and it’s something to celebrate—a rare and precious common ground.
But that’s not the only cause for hope. The reason that we are all upset about the state of our country is that we all care deeply about it. We want America to be the best that it can be, even if we can’t agree on what that should look like. We all have the conviction the USA can be better than before; we have a stake in it being better than ever. Despite everything, we believe.
So this Fourth of July, don’t despair. Every one of us wants a bright future for our country. Every one of us hopes for the best. And we know that we can obtain it—if those stupid idiots on the other side would only get out of our way.