Several days ago, Gallup released a poll that found a lot of pessimism among the American public: 38% of Americans described themselves as “extremely proud” to be an American. This is the lowest it has been since Gallup has tracked this particular data point.
None of us really need a poll to find pessimism in America right now. We’re surrounded by it. It is notable that this poll was done before the Supreme Court took a Ginzu knife to Roe. So it probably is, as crazy as this is to say, a bit on the optimistic side on the American mood.
National despair such as this is nothing really all that new in American history. One of the myths of American history is that the Founding Fathers took confidence in our young nation to their graves. As writer Jamelle Bouie points out, they were increasingly pessimistic about our country’s future as they neared the end of their lives in the early 1800s.
(John) Adams would oscillate between a kind of optimism and a disillusionment with the American experiment: “I fear there will be greater difficulties to preserve our Union, than You and I, our Fathers Brothers Friends Disciples and Sons have had to form it,” Adams wrote to (Thomas) Jefferson in 1816. During the administration of James Monroe, Adams wrote on an even darker note to John Quincy that, “If there is any Thing Serious in this World, the Selfishness of our Countrymen is not only Serious but melancholy, foreboding ravages of Ambition and Avarice which never were exceeded on this Selfish Globe.”
The “distemper in our Nation is so general,” he concluded, “and so certainly incurable.”
Certainly, Founding Father/Hip-Hop Star Alexander Hamilton, the namesake of a certain famous musical, was not so glum about America, right?
Nope. He wrote to Rufus King “the prospects of our Country are not brilliant. The mass is far from sound.”
Try putting a snazzy beat in a Broadway production to that lyric.
We are currently in a time where we are fearful that democracy itself is in danger, and our fellow Americans are the ones who are trying to destroy it. If you are looking for cockeyed optimism that all will be well, this is not the blog post to find it. It has become obvious that a few stories about flags and “we all want the same thing” statements (a delusional proposition in these times) and a trifle about being beeped at while running with a flag sadly fall flat during these moments. It is also obvious that they are not magical incantations that will make all okay (nor shut down the realists who have been all-too correct since the beginning of this century, even if some refuse to admit it and call them hyperbolic).
Despite this, I know that the promise of America is something to be proud of. There has never before been a multi-cultural, heterogeneous democracy on Earth. Great thinkers who are constantly told they are being anti-American, such as Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ibram X. Kendi, make it very clear they do not hate America, but want it live up to its promise.
That’s just it – is criticizing America, being angry with how things are going, a sign of hate? I’d argue the opposite – if a son turns up drunk at a holiday gathering and ruins the event, do the parents stop loving him? Much of the time, parents do not. In fact, the criticism of that son comes from a place of love, to try to turn his life around. So it is with criticizing America when it deserves it.
Wanting a country to change does not mean you hate it. In fact, a country that evolves is the original concept of the United States as a nation. Despite the originalism being pushed by conservatives, that is not what the Founders had in mind at all. From the Jefferson Memorial, the words of Thomas Jefferson:
It does not seem, based on those words, that Jefferson wanted a nation that was bound to the delusional words of a 17th Century man who believed it was fine for husbands to rape their wives.
Perhaps one day we will truly get on that path of a nation that is hand-in-hand with the progress of the human mind. But on this July 4th, we are not only off that path, we are heading off the cliff.
The last word goes to Los Angeles-based Mexican-American band Las Cafeteras, and Woody Guthrie. Woody Guthrie, always there, speaking to us over the years with a clear idea of what America should be.