On this July 4, tens of millions of Americans across this nation will celebrate Independence Day. Many of them will do so by watching fireworks and parades and joining together with friends and family for picnics and backyard barbeques. Those gatherings will undoubtedly be enjoyable times for the participants.
Two serious questions arise, however, as we approach this national holiday. What percentage of those citizens understand the historic importance of Independence Day? What percentage would feel that on this Independence Day, the United States of America is “one nation indivisible”?
To our knowledge, no scientific study has been conducted to answer those questions. We are relatively confident, though, that on July 4, 2023, the percentage who would know the importance of the day would be low, and the percentage who would view our country as an undivided one would be even lower.
It is critical for the future of our democratic republic that a large percentage of our citizens can answer both of these questions positively. Independence Day should not only be a time for celebration.
It should also be a time for reflection and introspection. It should be a time for looking backward, inward, and forward. Following are some thoughts to consider during that time.
Independence Day Historical Perspective
Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence (Declaration) by the members of the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The Declaration articulates the rights and the reasons for those living in the 13 united colonies of America to revolt and separate from England.
PBS, in the promotion of its A Capitol Fourth concert, provides an excellent short summary of The History of America’s Independence Day. Key points in that history include the following:
- The Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. The original draft was written by Thomas Jefferson and 86 changes were made before it was approved.
- Copies of the Declaration were distributed on July 5 and 6 and The Pennsylvania Evening Post was the first newspaper to publish it.
- There was a public reading of the Declaration in Independence Square in Philadelphia on July 7 “to the ringing of bells and band music.”
- One year after the signing, on July 4, 1777, Congress in Philadelphia marked the anniversary by adjourning and “celebrating with bonfires, bells, and fireworks.”
- In the following years, the celebrations spread to “towns, both large and small, where the day was marked with processions, oratory, picnics, contests, games, military displays, and fireworks.”
- After the British were defeated in the War of 1812, these celebrations “became even more common.”
- Congress established Independence Day as a national holiday in 1870. In 1938, Congress made it a paid holiday for federal employees.
The short PBS history concludes by stating, “Today, communities across the nation mark this major midsummer holiday with parades, firework displays, picnics, performances of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and marches by John Philip Sousa.”
Given this history, it is no mystery why July 4th is remembered as much or more by most Americans for the fun and the festivities that take place on the day as it is for the emancipatory event and declaration that caused it to be a national holiday.
One Nation Invisible Perspective
It should also be no mystery why on this 4th of July, the vast majority of Americans will perceive the U.S. as “one nation invisible” as opposed to “one nation indivisible.” Sadly, in 2023, this nation is more divided than it is united.
This division is not a recent occurrence, but it has intensified over the past several years. As we wrote in blogs published in 2022, we are becoming “The Island States of America.” In those Island States, states’ rights dominate and the country is becoming increasingly balkanized.
The U.S. Constitution provided the basis for the elevation and supremacy of states’ rights. The Trump administration took advantage of this in order to reverse-engineer the nation. After his defeat in 2020, Trump’s persistent insistence that the election was stolen and perpetuation of the Big Lie has caused his supporters and leaders at the state level to take actions to continue to widen the divide.
Three articles published by the New York Times identified sources for that continued widening. Columnist Jamelle Bouie signified on the role that states are playing in “stripping rights” from citizens. Professor Josh Chafetz stressed the emerging “supremacy” of the Supreme Court over the other branches of the federal government in shaping and interpreting policy. And commentator David French highlighted the alternative worldview that the MAGA supporters have, as demonstrated through their behavior and responses during the Donald Trump CNN Town Hall interview on May 11.
Each and all of those sources contribute to the widening of the divide. There is one that is not mentioned, though, which will be determinative for the future of our democracy.
That is the “state of mind” of many Americans today. As we noted in a blog written in October of 2022, the state of mind of Americans regarding how they define democracy and how well it is working today is greatly affected by which political party one belongs to, where one lives and whether their party is in charge.
We drew upon information and interviews with academics in a New York Times column by Thomas B. Edsall in our earlier blog. We draw upon a recent column by Edsall titled “The Politics of Delusion Have Taken Hold” in this blog in order to substantiate how “we the people” are putting democracy at risk.
Edsall opens his column writing, “There are very real — and substantial — policy differences between the Democratic and Republican Parties. At the same time, what scholars variously describe as misperception and even delusion is driving up the intensity of contemporary partisan hostility.”
That partisan hostility is borne out of what the academics have labeled “affective polarization.” Affective polarization is when people’s feelings or attitudes toward those in their own party or group grow more positive and the feelings or attitudes towards those in the other party or group become more negative.
Edsall comments that the “Rise of affective polarization is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon.” Research that he cites in his piece demonstrating the extent of this phenomenon include:
- Shanto Iyengar and Matthew Tyler, political scientists at Stanford, in their July 2022 paper report that the share of American National Election Studies partisans expressing extreme negativity for the out-party (a rating of 0 on a scale of 0 to 100) remained quite small leading up to and during 2000. Since 2000, however, the size of this share has increased dramatically — from 8 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2020. Thus, over the first two decades of this century, partisans’ mild dislike for their opponents metastasized into a deeper form of animus.
- Matthew Levendusky, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, in his recently published book, “Our Common Bonds: Using What Americans Share to Help Bridge the Partisan Divide” wrote:
Seventy-five percent of Democrats said Republicans were closed-minded, and 55 percent of Republicans said that Democrats were immoral (Pew Research Center, 2019). Nearly eight in 10 say that the two parties “fundamentally disagree” about core American values. More than 70 percent of all voters think those in the other party are “a clear and present danger to the American way of life.”
- In an August 2022 study, the Pew Research Center “found that majorities of both parties viewed the opposition as immoral, dishonest, close-minded and unintelligent — judgements that grew even more adverse, by 13 to 28 points from 2016 to 2022.
These statistics marking the widening division are stunning. They become even more stunning when it is realized that “affective polarization” is not just feelings and attitudes about those in the opposite party but those in other groups such as those of a different race, religion, or gender.
For many Americans, those feelings and attitudes are “hardened beliefs”. Those beliefs are core values, attitudes, and opinions developed early in life. They are immutable and become the basis for what is referred to as “identity politics,” through which people’s perceptions regarding those different than themselves shape their political agendas and actions.
The result of this, as Michael Dimock, the President of Pew Research Center noted, in an article quoted by Edsall, is that “…various types of identities have become ‘stacked’ on top of people’s partisan identities. Race, religion, and ideology now align with partisan identity in ways that they often didn’t in eras when the two parties were relatively heterogeneous coalitions.”
Due to this “stacking”, it will be difficult to impossible to reverse the impact of affective polarization on many citizens. Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford, makes this point in an email to Edsall in which he notes “there are two schools of thought” concerning delusions and misperceptions.”
In his e-mail, Persily states, “The first argues that factual mistakes are a significant engine of polarization and if we spend time correcting people’s misperceptions, it will have beneficial knock-out effects on reducing affective polarization.”
Persily does not go to that school. He asserts, “I do not think most of affective polarization is driven by a misunderstanding of facts. Indeed, I think many in this field make the mistake of thinking that the line to be policed is between truth and falsehood. Rather, I think the critical question is usually whether the truth is relevant or not.”
Edsall cites research on affective polarization by Jan G. Voelkel and eight colleagues at Stanford which supports Persily’s thinking. Their research revealed that “three depolarization interventions reliably reduced self-reported affective polarization.” Those interventions did not, however, reduce “support for undemocratic candidates, support for partisan violence, and prioritizing partisan ends over democratic means.”
One Nation Indivisible Perspective
These are not hopeful findings regarding the future of our democracy. They suggest that “one nation invisible” may be an absolute fact and that “one nation indivisible” is purely fiction. Is there any reason for hope and to believe otherwise on this Independence Day?
We believe there is. It is born out of an understanding of America’s history and who we are as Americans.
This nation has never been an undivided one. The Civil War is the foremost example of the divided states and citizenry of the nation. It does not stand alone, however.
There have been substantial divisions dating back to this nation’s founding and its founding documents. As we discussed in detail in the first chapter of our book, Working the Pivot Points: to Make America Work Again, the Constitution as approved by the delegates to the Constitution Convention in September 1787 was the product of compromise.
As students of history know, the Founding Fathers were frequently not of one mind. Their genius was the ability to reach a compromise — Federalist and Anti-Federalist joining together in the best interests of the nation to create the enduring framework for a “more perfect union.”
The compromising did not end in 1787. The Constitution was not ratified by the states until 1790 — after what became known as the Bill of Rights was appended to it by the First Congress of the United States in 1789. Even with this addition, the vote in many state legislatures to approve the Constitution was extremely close.
Without compromise, there would never have been a United States of America. In this extremely divided nation, in 2023, it didn’t seem that a political compromise was possible on anything important — especially on the issue of whether to raise the debt ceiling in order to avoid default.
Then, on May 28, President Joe Biden (D) and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R) announced that they had struck a deal on the debt ceiling Following that, on May 31, the House voted 314 -117 to pass legislation (The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023) in support of the deal, with 149 Republicans joining with 165 Democrats to ensure overwhelming approval. And on June 1, 17 Republicans joined with 46 Democrats in the Senate to pass the debt limit bill 63–36.
This coming together made what seemed impossible possible. It proved that politicians could still put country first rather party first.
The coalition of Democrats and Republicans demonstrated that even in these divisive times, those who have open rather than closed minds can collaborate. They can do this by using common sense and finding common ground in order to promote the common good.
This is the same kind of coalition building that will be necessary among the citizenry in general in order to keep America whole. Just as in the House and the Senate votes, not every American will join in the coalition-building.
There will be a variety of reasons for resistance and not participating. A main one will be where people fall on what we call the affective polarization/identity politics continuum.
Those on the extreme right and the extreme left of that continuum will be intractable. They will not change their opinion or position based on the truth or facts or in order to convene with those outside of their in-groups to accomplish something.
By contrast, 21st century citizens will do their homework, and then work with others of varying political and personal persuasions to ensure that the construct of one nation indivisible is not an illusion but an aspiration.
One nation indivisible does not mean that there are no divides in this nation. It means that there are divides that, in spite of their size, can be crossed when patriots come together to build bridges.
Those bridges become the platforms upon which Americans can stand in interdependence to reaffirm the power and potential of democracy and to ensure that one nation invisible is not this country’s destiny.
Those are own thoughts for this Independence Day.
In closing, we leave you with this thought from the commencement address that Tom Hanks gave to the graduating class at Harvard this year:
“Every day, every year, and for every graduating class, there is a choice to be made. It’s the same option for all grown-ups, who have to decide to be one of three types of Americans. Those who embrace liberty and freedom for all, those who won’t, or those who are indifferent.”
Happy 4th of July!
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.