How to unite the nation once more
Every so often in history, our Fourth of July celebrations are eclipsed by historic and crippling divisions. Think July 4, 1968, nearly a month after the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy, in a burning summer of protests culminating in the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Or think even further back to July 4, 1863, when two American armies left a blood soaked field in Gettysburg with 50,000 casualties.
But in each of these cases, and others, we somehow found our way back to each other in an imperfect union. The Fourth of July divisions today may not feel as kinetic as in 1968 or 1863, but they worry me. They also invigorate me because they create opportunities to make all Americans feel great about America again. First, the worry. This is not north versus south as it was in the Civil War, and no one is seceding from the union. But the underlying intensity has the same feel. Carl Bernstein put it best at a recent dinner I attended on Long Island, saying the nation is in a cold civil war. “Out of many one” has been replaced with “my way or the highway.”
It is not the conventional fault line between conservatives and liberals, it is the driving of a chasm between the messianic movement of Trumpism, whose virulence from the right begets equal virulence from the left. Our polarities are intensified by technologies that Abraham Lincoln did not have to deal with. Now we have deepfakes, social media, and tribal news outlets with audiences cheering when their favorite hosts tell them that everything they believe is right. All those great divisions of the past were ultimately tempered by institutions that today seem incapable of bringing us together. In the 1960s, there was Walter Cronkite to tell us the truth. Now the truth is attacked as false and lies peddled as “alternative facts.”
We could celebrate our humanity under one God within our places of worship, but many of those religious institutions have been scandalized and politicized. We at once could hear a diverse range of opinions in heterogeneous neighborhoods and factory floors. As I have pointed out before, crediting David Wasserman, these days we tend to live in either conservative Cracker Barrel counties or liberal Whole Foods counties, and only a sliver of congressional districts are ideologically diverse. We used to gather in our communities for mahjong. Now it is all simply mayhem.
There is still hope. At its core, the Fourth of July celebrates military victory against the odds and the triumph of democracy. That triumph has been constantly challenged in the past 243 years, and we have prevailed each time, but usually at great cost. Think 1776, when we were on the verge of losing the Revolutionary War. Think 1812, when the British burned the White House down. Think the Civil War, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War. The binding strings of the nation were pulled hard, and sometimes snapped, but they were always bound together in the end.
If it was not hopeless then, it is not hopeless today. Days after July 4, 1968, Americans rediscovered our common spirit when we landed on the moon. We can heal today with another bold collective endeavor. Maybe it is an infrastructure vision to reverse the decay of our roads and bridges and trains. Maybe it is the equivalent of a moonshot to find cures for cancer.
Months after July 4, 1863, Lincoln returned to Gettysburg. It was the tweet of its time, 272 words that perfectly captured our essence. In a cemetery of eternal cost, he reminded us why that price must be paid. We need a president who will, as Lincoln said in a different speech, “bind up the nation’s wounds.” That is why I think the central issue in this presidential campaign is not necessarily the position of candidates on an issue, it is how they answer a much deeper question. What will you do to heal us?
We need to transcend the kind of identity politics that reduces America to the aggrieved sum of its ailing parts. Every group of citizens living in this country deserves to be heard, and the marginalization and victimization of many such groups must be addressed honestly. But at a certain point, we need common ground instead of political trenches, and inalienable rights instead of a culture that relentlessly alienates one group from the other.
Finally, we need to return to teaching our children civics. How can we aspire to common ground when our education system has uprooted our children from a sustained knowledge of how democracy is supposed to work? If we do these things, we can rediscover the common humanity that strengthened us against us 18th century monarchy, 19th century slavery, and 20th century tyranny. If not, then our future Fourths of July may look considerably different from the one we will proudly celebrate this week.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
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