If you caught up with family over Thanksgiving, it’s likely you argued about why our country is coming apart.
Lots of people — political scientists, sociologists, pundits, and others — have already weighed in over the past few years. But one particular theory on why this is pulls together many threads.
We no longer share even a rudimentary understanding of what makes this country “America” and what makes us “American.” In other words, we’ve collectively lost a substantive sense of what differentiates America from all other countries, and perhaps more importantly, what differentiates Americans from all other peoples.
One of the many achievements of our Founding Fathers was devising a system of government that allowed for ideological disagreements to be hashed out peacefully. No longer would we rely upon pistols and guillotines to change regimes. Rather, we would use debate and elections to win others to our side.
At the center of this achievement was freedom of expression. But today, an increasing number of college students sincerely believe that drowning out unpopular speakers on campus with shouting and bullhorns qualifies as “freedom of speech.”
This warped interpretation of the First Amendment is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our nation’s systemic lack of civic knowledge. A growing percentage of Americans, especially younger Americans, appear to be grossly uninformed about what makes America unique and exceptional.
This week, The Foundation for Liberty and American Greatness (FLAG) released its first annual State of American Patriotism report, informed by a nationwide survey that investigated levels of national pride among several generations of U.S. citizens.
Conducted by YouGov, it starkly reveals that Americans under 38 (Gen Z and Millennials) are becoming unmoored from the institutions, knowledge, and spirit traditionally associated with American patriotism.
The very notion that America is exceptional is maligned and, as a result, in steep decline. Of those surveyed, 50 percent and 49 percent believe the United States is sexist and racist, respectively.
The trends among younger Americans are particularly disturbing: 46 percent do not agree that “America is the greatest country in the world,” while 38 percent do not agree that “America has a history that we should be proud of.” Further, one in eight (14 percent) of Millennials agree that “America was never a great country and it never will be.”
I recently caught flak when speaking at a school before Veterans Day for declaring that our country is exceptional. And to be frank, by “exceptional,” I don’t just mean “different.” I mean that, in many respects, our country and, specifically, its ideals are superior. This should be common sense and uncontroversial.
Although other countries often have values and aims that differ from our own, the constant in modern history is that most people on every continent prefer, at the most basic level, a life of opportunity and freedom akin to the one that we enjoy here at home.
All of this is perfectly obvious to the American who has never left the small rural town in which they were born and raised. Amazingly, it’s those in academia and media who, despite advanced degrees and world travel, assert that there is little, if anything, noble and enviable about America.
If we hadn’t thought of our country as great when it confronted the Axis powers, we probably wouldn’t have been able to muster the spirit to triumph over fascism. If we hadn’t thought of our country as great during the Cold War, we almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to bring nations under communism to the cause of liberty, causing the Iron Wall to topple.
Cynicism has consequences. With nearly one in five Millennials believing that the American flag is “a sign of intolerance and hatred,” would we again be able to overcome an evil empire?
If we want to come together, we have to come together around something. To reunite the most incredible country in human history, that something must be something far more inspiring than merely a shared tiredness over political fighting. Being together in the American sense means passionately rallying around a set of ideals.
Indeed, the notion that one can be an American and reject our country’s exceptionalism — from its unprecedented conception to its contemporary accomplishments — would have struck virtually all generations of Americans until very recently as very foreign. And it would also be a rejection of moral truth as well as reality.
To start, we need to overhaul civics education in our public schools. Here’s yet one more alarm from the FLAG/YouGov survey: 84% of Americans do not know the specific rights enumerated in the First Amendment. (If you’re among the four in five unsure about what the five freedoms in the first amendment are, they are freedom of religion, speech, press, peaceful assembly, and petition).
But importantly, the lessons taught in classrooms must be put into practice. Younger Americans have to truly absorb the value of voluntary association, whether in the form of fraternal organizations, houses of worship, elected office, or military service.
If you’re sick and tired of all the divisiveness and want us to heal, we should begin with a humble appreciation of what has kept our country united, in the face of tremendous trials and tribulations, for the past two-and-a-half centuries.
Nick Adams is the founder and executive director of the Foundation for Liberty and American Greatness (FLAG).
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.