Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.
– George Orwell, 1984
There are no easy answers, but we know times are changing. The economy is in flux. New technologies are disrupting communications, transportation, energy, food, and medicine, and altering forever much of daily life. Immigration is surging, and the influx of new peoples is affecting American culture. There are divisions between urban and rural populations, between rich and poor, men and women, young and old. It seems like everything is moving and no one knows where we are going. Yet this is nothing new. Rapid change is natural to this country. The challenges just mentioned are the same that confronted the country at the dawn of the twentieth century. The historian John P. Roche (1923–1994), in his classic 1963 book on civil rights, The Quest for the Dream, noted the sense of optimism of his father’s generation: “They were at home in their universe and they knew its rules,” he wrote.
That generation of Americans and their children weathered the coming storms and coped with change while holding onto the country’s heritage. They scraped through the Great Depression, fought two world wars, and made America the most powerful and influential nation in the world. In the conclusion of his book, Roche, with all the confidence of Kennedy-era New Frontier liberalism, said there was “more respect for freedom and dedication to equality in the United States than we have ever known before,” and that in 1963 “every indicator points toward the future elaboration of these libertarian principles.”
Unfortunately, things did not work out as planned. The old style rational liberalism that John Roche represented was overwhelmed by the progressive New Left. Vietnam, Watergate, student radicalism, and race riots spawned a new, angrier, and anti-American leftism. The student radicals of the 1960s became the professoriate that trained the progressives of today. And when old-school social democrat Professor Roche returned to Brandeis University in 1968 after serving as a presidential advisor, student radicals firebombed his office and threatened his life.
Measurements of trust in government reflect our political rollercoaster ride. In October 1964, according to a Pew survey, 77 percent of Americans said they could trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.” By March 1980, this figure had fallen to 26 percent. Ronald Reagan helped partially rebuild trust, though in the 1990s the numbers slumped and fluctuated, sagging to the teens by the end of George W. Bush’s administration, where they have mostly remained since. Another troubling indicator is that only 23 percent of likely voters think that the federal government has the consent of the governed, the basic requirement of the social contract. It is a sad comment on the state of public confidence in the political system.
The difference between the twentieth-century era of American greatness and the challenges we face today is the diminished sense of optimism and national purpose. Ronald Reagan said that when he grew up the love of country was in the air, and we could use a fresh breeze of that feeling today.
It seems strange to have to make the case for loving and respecting America. Such feelings should be automatic. It is good to be proud of this country because, despite the revisionists, there is a lot to be proud of. This country was not built by slavery; it overcame and abolished slavery. This is not a land of rampant discrimination but of a people in active pursuit of the more perfect union. This is not a country of grinding exploitation but of limitless opportunity. It is not an imperialist country but the greatest proponent of freedom in human history.
The United States is the realization of Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty,” the country that took the lead in defeating fascism and communism and is still fighting radical threats to freedom. Our troops and veterans are not baby killers and torturers; they are pillars of their communities who have served the country nobly and with honor. The Founders were not fundamentally evil. Though flawed, they were great men who left a great legacy. We do not suffer the American nightmare; we live the American dream. For all its faults, for all its past mistakes, for all its present foibles, our country is still worth all the devotion we can muster.
One bit of good news is that patriotism endures. Gallup polling going back to the 1980s shows that 70 to 80 percent of respondents are very or extremely proud of being American. The figures for those who are only a little or not at all proud of the country are consistently in single digits. And the American Dream is back in fashion. According to a more recent Pew Survey, 82 percent say that they either have achieved the dream or are on the way to achieving it. The fact is that people want to be inspired and feel good about their country. They desire a national narrative that supports their dreams. They are proud to be part of a noble experiment in human freedom.
Skeptics who snort at feel-good narratives can hardly defend their feel-bad alternative. And it is no coincidence that those most driven to disparage their country’s history are also those most hostile to liberty. Progressive thinking is reflexively autocratic, seeking to broaden and deepen government and bureaucratic control over daily life. That’s why it is hostile to history, which undermines it. Every authoritarian system has to rewrite the past.
The globalists who think Americans should aspire to be better international citizens should also be aware that there is a lot going on in the world that Americans need no part of. Whatever the shortcomings of the United States, the rest of the world is no garden spot. Americans have a healthy appreciation for their country that should be maintained. In a survey of people around the world asking whether they prefer being a citizen of their country to being a citizen of any other, the United States ranked first with 74 percent strongly agreeing, followed by Japan (61 percent) and Canada (58 percent).6 Maybe Americans don’t need to be more international as much as the world needs to be more American.
Americans can also try to reach across the political divide and foster a renewed appreciation for each other. A CBS poll in the summer of 2017 showed that while two-thirds of Americans felt that civility in politics was getting worse, a slim majority (55 percent) was optimistic that “Americans of different political views can still come together and work out their differences.” This attitude cut across party lines. Even Bill Clinton recently lamented that “tribalism based on race, religion, sexual identity and place of birth has replaced inclusive nationalism, in which you can be proud of your tribe and still embrace the larger American community.”
One way to overcome this tribalism is by cultivating a can-do culture instead of a victim culture. This has historically been the American way, a code of competence and spirit of achievement. After “In God We Trust,” the national motto could well be “Git ’er done.” It is what built the country and made it a world leader in industry, finance, technology, information, and culture. Promoting the ideology of victimhood—especially when based on past events that contemporary people had no part of—engenders a helplessness and sense of entitlement that is antithetical to the American competitive spirit. And those who believe in hard work and other “bourgeois values” can legitimately shrug off progressive guilt-tripping and move on.
A fair appreciation of history informs that onward motion. The project to make America great again is forward-looking and aspirational and seeks above all to recapture the ambitious American spirit. The progressives, despite their label, are backward and beholden to discarded ideas of socialism and tribalism that have already failed. Reawakening the American spirit begins with rediscovering the greatness of the American story. This is not a country that succeeded in spite itself or by accident. Our country’s wealth, influence, and freedom are a decisive counter-argument to those who see only the worst in our history.
Ronald Reagan spoke to the necessary connection between history and advancement when he said that progress “would not mean rejection of the past” but “must be rooted in traditional values—in the land, in culture, in family and community—and it must take its life from the eternal things, from the source of all life, which is faith.” This leads to “new understandings, new opportunities, to a broader future in which the tradition is not supplanted but finds its full flowering.”
At its simplest, this is a choice that every generation faces: to be part of the solution or part of the problem. To nurture our union or to allow it to erode and collapse. We all play a role. “We the people” is truer today than it was in 1787—more citizens than ever before are positioned and empowered to take part in civic life. And our nation’s history is being made by us, now.
President Lincoln invoked the unifying power of the “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land,” when touched by “the better angels of our nature.” So it is today. America cannot be erased so long as it lives in the hearts of its people.
James S. Robbins is a USA Today columnist and the author of “Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past.”
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.