At the conclusion of Mass this past Sunday, the closing hymn was “America the Beautiful.” As the congregation sang the glorious words, I choked up as I always do for that venerable song. And I was reminded that America’s birthday is a good time to reflect on our nation’s history, founding principles and current state.
America was born almost 250 years ago, uniquely placing the government in the hands of the governed. “We the people” laid the foundation for the democratic republic which changed the world for the better. Bold, adventurous American colonists propelled the values of political and economic freedom, religious liberty and individual initiative to the forefront of humanity. The world took note and America was called upon to lead efforts to defeat the spread of fascism and later, Soviet Communism. Like other prominent countries, we also committed some terrible transgressions — most notably, the horrific sin of slavery. But we atoned and survived as a nation and reaffirmed our commitment to equality and freedom.
As we grew and prospered, America led the Free World. Americans became known as risk takers who advance individual initiative and chutzpah. As we built on our founding principle of equality for all, America became the most racially diverse nation in the world. And we embraced the principle of liberty as we nurtured individual, economic and political freedom at home and abroad. While political debate on the issues of the day became regular and intense, we shared a belief in the American way of life and respect for one another. The outcome of a particular issue may have disappointed one side, but underlying confidence in our institutions and founding principles was strong enough for all to appreciate the ebb and flow of decisions.
But today, our historic commitment to a set of shared basic beliefs is at risk. Legitimate disagreements have evolved into intolerance of differing viewpoints as foundational institutions and principles are under assault.
We now are separated by “red states” and “blue states” with a small handful of “swing states” determining national elections. Just 39 years ago, Ronald Reagan won reelection by carrying 49 states and losing only the District of Columbia and opponent Walter Mondale’s home state of Minnesota (the latter by a 0.18% margin). That level of consensus is unimaginable today.
In 2016, 139 million votes were cast in the presidential election, and Donald Trump won the presidency by a total of 80,000 combined votes in three swing states. In 2020, with 154 million votes tallied in the presidential election, Joe Biden secured a razor-thin 44,000 combined votes in three swing states as the margin of victory.
Winning national elections has become all about satisfying the respective bases of each party, rather than seeking broader consensus from the middle. And America’s social cohesion has been tested as various groups seek to coerce the entire society to not only accept their status, but also to completely adopt their positions. This has provoked a culture war among various individual belief sets and values. Those social issues become far more personal and intense than ongoing economic and foreign policy matters. The country’s internal dissension is prompting a heightened level of frustration among the public and putting the country in a distressing funk.
So how does America get her mojo back? Commitment to a few basic founding principles may help.
Respect for longstanding American institutions is a core tenet of our stability. There has been recent chatter about stacking the U.S. Supreme Court to satisfy a political whim. Bad idea. Radically altering core institutions is a model of banana republics, not democratic world leaders. Relatedly, voting in a democracy is an honor and privilege. Election processes must be clear and validate each individual vote. And election results must be fully accepted and acknowledged.
Our educational institutions also could do more to teach civics and history, get back to basics, and leave personal, intimate issues to parents. Universities need a quick reality check; their job is to encourage a free exchange of ideas and respect for all opinions. Free speech is an American bedrock. Universities should embrace and advance this democratic essential.
Equality of opportunity provides a level playing field and aligns ideally with the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal….” Contrarily, equity reallocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. Arbitrarily choosing to penalize one group for the benefit of another is divisive and counterproductive, and it contradicts a primary foundational principle. America cannot become a country of disparate groups, each with a separate identity advocating solely for its own myopic purpose rather than for the overall good of society.
The American story is still being told. Returning to our foundational principles is the best path to enhancing that tale. Our history, while imperfect, has improved humanity and lifted the individual over the state. Liberty and equality can ─ and must ─ find harmony and balance once more.