Every July 4, Americans gather to celebrate an act of alienation. It’s true.
When you move beyond the grand opening words of the Declaration of Independence, you see what really motivated the Founders to stake their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor.” They were royally ticked off. The Declaration’s long list of grievances against King George III seethes with a sense of injustice: “He has refused ... He has abdicated … He has plundered …” Thomas Jefferson and Co. believed they no longer had a national government connected to them in any way, except for the purpose of exploiting and abusing them.
Although there are no revolutionary movements afoot in America today (beyond a few crazed militias), it is perhaps not too far-fetched to wonder whether history is starting to repeat itself—or at least sending off warning flares in our direction. Americans are growing more and more alienated from the institutions the Founders created but that many of us no longer feel represent us or our values very well. In other words, our sense of alienation itself is becoming institutionalized. And that seems to be the case also among a demographically changing population of the Next America, people who feel less ethnic kinship to the WASPs who founded the country.
Worst of all, because some of these institutions are so broken, the alienation is only growing. Consider immigration, which wasn’t much of an issue during the Revolution (although a few Founders were immigrants themselves), but is front and center for many people in the Next America, especially Latinos. From the Supreme Court to the White House to Congress, our elected and appointed officeholders have failed to arrive at anything like a consensus on basic-but-critical questions.
Is deciding immigration policy more a state’s right, as Mitt Romney and dissenting Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia say, or is it a federal one, as a majority of five justices seems to have finally affirmed in late June?
What should be the fate of the children of illegal immigrants, especially after they’ve grown up here? Last month, after years of inconclusive dickering with Congress, President Obama decided unilaterally to permit hundreds of thousands of these immigrants to remain in the country. He was immediately attacked by Republicans, many of whom seem to prefer avoiding the issue.
Perhaps it is no surprise that, according to a new Gallup poll, confidence in every major government institution is near historically low numbers, with Congress scraping bottom.
For several of these institutions, especially Congress, these numbers have steadily dropped to historic lows since such Gallup surveys were first taken in the 1970s. Congress never earned more than 50 percent approval (unless one includes those who said they have “some” confidence in it); but for most of the 1970s and ’80s, the percentage of those who said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence was regularly in the 30s and 40s before descending into the 20s during the 1990s, as today’s era of no-prisoners partisanship began. Nonwhites are slightly less disgusted than whites with the presidency and Congress, but the latest numbers show that their support is dropping too, despite the presence of the first African-American in the White House.
Those in power—our still largely white-majority leaders in Washington—ignore the growing alienation of this new America at the nation’s peril. While our politicians are paralyzed, our nation faces a period of sputtering growth and stalemate over economic philosophy. It also is demonstrating an inability to take care of several cast-off generations of “left-behind” workers and to educate a new generation of workers for the rigors of an ever more intense global competition.
All this suggests that the American Dream that sustained more than two centuries of progress needs revitalizing.
Sadly, the solutions are before us, and they too go back to the Founders. As Michael Lind writes in his brilliant new book, Land of Promise, before the American Revolution, our British overlords were determined to subordinate the colonies as a permanent satellite agricultural economy. But after the war, Lind writes, Alexander Hamilton saw a way forward: use the newly empowered national government to foster nascent industries. Hamilton’s chief sponsor, President Washington, spurned his own agricultural philosophy to embrace this well-balanced policy of mercantilism.
These ideas, also identified with the Whigs of the 19th century, have found a home in the ideologies of both the Obama administration and such (relatively) enlightened Republicans as Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana. Both want to attack the deficit to free funds for national reinvestment. Both want to reorient tax policies toward production rather than consumption. Both want an equitable solution to illegal immigration.
And both want to revive a proud leitmotif that characterized government policy from the 19th century at least through the Eisenhower administration: keeping budgets as lean as possible while developing the nation’s infrastructure and education systems.
Yet, politically, we seem unable to arrive at anything close to such a consensus today. Our institutions and our politics, in their fecklessness, sometimes recall the arrogance of the British Crown and Parliament as they enacted one stupid law after another (beginning with the Stamp Act through the “Coercive Acts”) before the culminating events of 1776. “The pride and vanity [of the British] is a disease; it is a delirium,” John Adams later wrote.
Are the beneficiaries of Adams’s handiwork, our men and women in Washington, suffering from a similar delirium, one that has kept them from embracing the realities of the Next America? I fear so.
The author is National Journal’s chief correspondent.
This article appears in the July 28, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.