It’s up to us to restore America’s national pride and confidence
Traumas of recent years have exposed deep divisions in our society. Those traumas have included the coronavirus pandemic; social division and violence; vitriolic political partisanship combined with conspiracy theories and lies about a stolen presidential election that culminated in a deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021; the humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan; a brutal Russian re-invasion of Ukraine; four-decade-high inflation; supply-chain disruptions, and the prospect of a recession.
Trauma and division have depleted confidence in our common identity as Americans and sapped our pride. A deficit in confidence and pride is consequential because, as the late philosopher Richard Rorty observed, “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement.”
Independence Day provides an opportunity for Americans to celebrate our 246-year history and the principles on which our nation was founded, especially the inalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness set forth in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the radical idea that sovereignty lies neither with king nor parliament, but with the people.
Learning and celebrating our history should help restore our confidence in who we are as Americans. Pride in nation should not derive from a contrived happy view of history but rather from a recognition that our experiment in freedom and democracy always was and remains a work in progress.
Traumas of recent years have reminded us that that we are still coping with the legacy of slavery. It is possible to celebrate the emancipation of 4 million of our fellow Americans after the most destructive war in our history and also recognize that emancipation was only the beginning of a long journey for equal rights. Milestones along that journey included the failure of reconstruction after the Civil War, Jim Crow segregation and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and “separate but equal” as a racist legal doctrine. It is possible to celebrate progress such as the dismantlement of the legal basis for Jim Crow segregation during the 1960s and recognize that cultural, economic, educational and other forms of disenfranchisement continued, and that there is more work to be done.
It also is important to learn history to guard against those who would manipulate it to sap our confidence and divide us further.
The manipulation of history was foundational to the obstruction of equal rights for Black Americans as the myth of the “Lost Cause” portrayed slavery as benign instead of cruel and the Civil War as a noble effort to protect states’ rights rather than to preserve slavery. Yet it is an abuse of history as well to cast the American Revolution as an effort to perpetuate slavery rather than a righteous struggle to found a nation on principles that ultimately rendered that horrible institution unsustainable. It is possible to take pride in the principles enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution while recognizing that work remains to realize them fully.
History can help us see that the traumas of today are not unprecedented and that we have agency and authorship over our future. In the 1970s, for example, our nation was deeply divided over race and an unpopular war, over the Watergate scandal and the ensuing coverup which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Other events shook America’s confidence, such as the Vietnamese Communist assault on Saigon and the desperate evacuation of the American embassy in April 1975. Stagflation and oil crises added economic trauma. The decade ended with an Iranian revolution, a failed hostage rescue attempt, and a 444-day-long hostage crisis.
History gives us reason to be confident, though.
At the end of the 1970s, the Soviet Union appeared strong but would last just over a decade longer. Like Chairman Xi Jinping of China and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Soviet leaders saw America’s tolerance for civil and political liberties as a vulnerability. The struggles of the 1970s, however, belied American strength. As An Wang, who migrated to the United States from China in the 1950s and founded the ground-breaking computer company Wang Laboratories, said of his adopted country, “As a nation we do not always live up to our ideals … but we have structures that allow us to correct our wrongs by means short of revolution.” Citizens in the United States and across the free world have a say in how they are governed. Democracy is resilient. Authoritarianism is brittle.
It is time to challenge those who want to put the words “institutional” or “systemic” in front of every problem we face. Those words often are used to rob Americans of agency, leaving only a toxic combination of resignation and anger.
Institutions are comprised of people. American’s system gives citizens authorship over the future.
It is possible to improve equality of opportunity so that the zip code into which one is born does not impede access to the great promise of America. It is possible to protect our privacy from the avarice of social media companies while preserving freedom of speech. It is possible to ensure voting rights while constantly improving the security and transparency of our electoral processes. It is possible to secure our borders and make the American dream more accessible to immigrants who share our principles. It is possible to overcome racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry without succumbing to philosophies that promote victimhood as the new heroism and teach our children that they are defined more by their identity category than their character.
We might tell our leaders to stop compromising our principles to score partisan political points. But we need not wait for the political class to restore our confidence in our common identity as Americans and in our democratic principles and institutions.
On this Independence Day, we might draw confidence from the courageous Ukrainians who are fighting for the freedoms we often take for granted.
We can all do our part to restore our collective pride. Let us resolve to cherish our freedom and realize the motto that appears on the Great Seal of the Republic: “E pluribus unum,” or “Out of many, one.” As the patriot and civil rights activist Rosa Parks observed, we will fail only if we fail to try.
H.R. McMaster is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former White House national security adviser. He holds a PhD in American History from the University of North Carolina and is the author of numerous books, including “Dereliction of Duty” and most recently, “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.”