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A new birth of freedom: Why current American pessimism is misplaced

The people now assembling in the streets are not demanding that we overthrow our original ideas; they are demanding that we live up to them.

Mothers stand between federal law enforcement officers and protesters during a protest against racial inequality in Portland, Oregon, on Sunday.
Mothers stand between federal law enforcement officers and protesters during a protest against racial inequality in Portland, Oregon, on Sunday.
REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

We are not happy. A recent Gallup poll recorded the lowest levels of national pride in two decades. The same survey also recorded that only 20 percent of those polled were satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. at this time, a four-year low. The New York Times recently asked reporters in key battleground states to take the pulse of voters on the extraordinary events of the past few months and found one unifying trend: Voters on all sides of the political spectrum seem to think “it’s all screwed up.” In recent years writers on both the right and left have declared the American experiment to be in serious trouble. In a moment dominated by pandemic, recession, and social strife it is hard not to feel like we are careening toward some type of apocalypse, if we aren’t there already. And it is not hard to see why many of us feel pessimistic. But amidst the chaos, confusion, and uncertainty one thing has been made undeniably clear: The founding ideals of this country are valid and true.

When the founders stated that we were all created equal they no more discovered the truth of human equality than Columbus discovered America. But they did clearly, forcibly, and legally, state it and make it a central tenet of our national structure. It is an idea so revolutionary and threatening to historical power structures that those in power have since spent nearly 250 years trying every conceivable device to qualify that statement, walk it back, and dilute the power of its underlying truth. But the force of this truth has not been weakened, even as its implementation in public policy has been stilted, backward, and often purposefully counterproductive.

No longer an ‘experiment’

It may be a little too optimistic to say that arc of history inevitably bends toward justice but the undeniable and immovable truth is that the idea of equality has power precisely because it is a self-evident truth. I would argue that the American “experiment” is not in peril; it is over. The results are in and they are clear: Human equality — the fact that we are all equally valuable members of a human community and all equally worthy of life, liberty, and love – is not only a viable foundation for government, it is the only enduring principle of human community that matters. We are in this together. We are here for each other. We can no longer afford to be merely experimenting with these ideas.

John Patterson
John Patterson
The same poll that registered a four-year low in the satisfaction of the direction of our country also registered a 15-year high not four months ago. A swing that dramatic suggests that perhaps the real issue is not that we are dissatisfied but that we are uncertain as to what direction we are headed in at all. And while there are all manner of cynical and pessimistic reasons we could point to for that uncertainty, just maybe we are uncertain as to where we are going because we are entering into unchartered waters. The America of tomorrow is going to look different from any America we have ever seen before: The millennial generation is now the largest generation in America, and it is the most ethnically diverse, a trend that is continuing with generation z, and has long been in the making.

Of course, demographics are not necessarily destiny; while the diversification of the American population has been on a steady upward trend since 1940, the progress toward equality for minority groups has been halting at best. And while some might dismiss the idea that future generations of Americans will be more open minded as a longstanding excuse for inaction in the present, recent years have seen real and concrete shifts in the American psyche. Long-held social norms on topics such as LGBTQI rights, sexual harassment, and racial equality are rapidly shifting or undergoing renewed and intensified scrutiny. Much of this is being driven by millennials and the new generation z, who, along with gen xers, are now outvoting baby boomers and all other older generations. We are changing. The future is fast approaching and what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Ample reason to be optimistic

That kind of uncertainty is ample reason to be anxious. But there is also ample reason to be optimistic about the next chapter of American history because the people now assembling in the streets are not demanding that we overthrow our original ideas; they are demanding that we live up to them. This is not a counter-revolution, this is the original American revolution, carried forth through the decades in an ongoing struggle to fulfill the ambition of our founding creed.

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To do so we will have to change. We need to make voting easier, not harder. We should get rid of the caucusing system. We need to de-politicize our judiciary and take a serious look at Supreme Court reform. We need to get rid of the Electoral College. We need a truly progressive tax system, real action on climate change, honest engagement on gun safety, and to completely reimagine policing and community well-being. And we can’t just change our laws and policies, we have to change our minds. We will have to change how we see each other and see ourselves. We have to look hard at and reckon with the sins of our past.

This is long and difficult work. Some who have grown accustomed to privilege and comfort will have to relinquish advantages and experience discomforts. But adversity and struggle are the stuff of greatness, privilege and comfort the stuff of mediocrity. And make no mistake, we are a great nation founded on great ideas. America is not Mom and Apple Pie. America is the assertion that every single human being — regardless of sex, gender identity, ethnicity, race, religion, non-religion, net worth, place of birth — has value and deserves the chance to be happy.

Nearly 160 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln addressed a warring nation and called for a new birth of freedom. On that November day in 1863 the very existence of our nation was in the balance and the true meaning of our creed at the center of the crisis. From that precipice, a young nation barely holding off a surging rebellion, we went on to become one of history’s most prosperous and influential nation states. We not only survived, we improved; we made ourselves be better. We’ve done it before, we can do it again. This is perhaps our greatest superpower as a nation: the ability to reimagine ourselves in closer and closer approximations of our best ideals.

A more perfect union is by no means inevitable, but it is absolutely possible, maybe now more than ever.

John Patterson is a professional humanitarian, Navy veteran, and Minnesota native. 

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