Because I write about current events for a living, people often let me know their thoughts and worries. By far the most common question I hear goes something like this: Have Americans ever been more divided than we are today? Given that every schoolchild learns of our brutal Civil War–in which more than 600,000 people died, a President was assassinated, and the economies of 11 Southern states were decimated–it’s an alarming query.
Yes, things have been much worse … but it’s scary that we’re asking.
I think the question reflects a widespread worry that America is becoming brittle, that we are hung up on differences when the times demand unity of purpose. On this 240th birthday of the USA, it’s fair to ask, Are we any more prepared to absorb domestic tensions and respond to international turmoil–from refugee crises to Brexit–than we were in earlier eras? Are we growing stronger with age, or have the institutions of American society become feeble?
Our wheezy old political parties appear to have settled on two of the least popular presidential candidates in modern history. Donald Trump, the Republican, oozes contempt for the emollient civility of civic life. Democrat Hillary Clinton’s slog to the nomination has left her party divided and her credibility in tatters. Both have their zealous supporters, of course. But judging from surveys, tens of millions of Americans would just as soon pick between sunburn and hives–if not between fear and loathing.
Other pillars of American life are just as shaky. Congress, the media, Big Business and Wall Street have all squandered faith. Authority figures from judges to police officers, schoolteachers to elected officials, are teetering in a rising tide of skepticism. The practice of religion–especially Christianity–is in decline, according to the Pew Research Center, while the ivory tower of academia is besieged.
Whether our divisions are as deep as they have been in the past, it has never been easier to amplify strife. In the space of a generation, we have transformed ourselves from a culture of shared experiences to a radical democracy of personal choice. We now read what we want, not what some powerful publisher chooses for us. We watch what we want, when we want it. We build communities of our choosing no matter where we actually live, and if we wish, these virtual town squares can endlessly reinforce our existing opinions while redoubling our antagonisms. There are fortunes to be made and careers to be built on fostering tribes and nursing grudges.
No wonder the national mood is sour. The way we work, the way we communicate, the way we mate, raise children and grow old: everything is up for grabs. Such rapid change entails a heavy dose of psychic violence.
The historian Henry Adams noted this in his classic autobiography. At the turn of the 20th century, in the dawn of X-rays, automobiles and wireless communication, he found himself standing near a faintly humming electrical generator–the state of the art in unseen power–on display in a Paris exhibition hall. “The new forces were anarchical,” he declared of these invisible, irresistible transformations. “Man had translated himself into a new universe,” and Adams “found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.”
The new forces were anarchical. With those five words, Adams wrote an apt motto for the chaos and technological disruption to follow, all the way down to this moment. Anarchy is the reign of ungoverned impulses, answering to no authority. It is the political expression of rampant division.
Imagine how many bones Adams would break at the sight of handheld supercomputers, of genome sequencers, of artificial brains chatting amiably about the weather while playing DJ on the kitchen counter. What paralysis might beset him when a simple question concerning a doctor’s bill led him first to a touchscreen, then to a robot, then to a voice caroming off a satellite from a call center in Mumbai or Manila?
On this Independence Day 2016, we may reasonably feel like hostages to our own newfound freedom, blindfolded and bound in the trunk of a careening car called change. And every bruise and contusion we suffer jostling down the rutted road to the future brings us a little closer, or so we fear, to an unseen doom.
On the other hand, July 4th is our annual reminder that America is very good at constant revolution. No matter how buffeted and disjointed by change we may feel, in the end we emerge with the reins in our hands. And this is due–interestingly, ironically–to the very same impulse that currently works to divide us: individualism. Despite the distortions created by the digital upheaval, America’s greatest strength is still its people power.
Our ability to decentralize decisionmaking, to unleash the strength and creativity of individuals, is the bright side of our current situation. From Brussels to Beijing, from Congress to the churches, establishments are reeling, but we still look here to the grassroots and cross our fingers. “The bright side” is not the same as “the easy part”–nothing about these times is easy. But it is the way of hope.
Deep down, Americans have never truly believed in “forces,” anarchical or otherwise. We acknowledge ungovernable trends in technology, demographics, economics; we often let these currents swamp our confidence and spoil our moods. But at the level of cultural inheritance, Americans bridle at the idea of implacable tides, unseen currents and historical fates. Instead of forces, we believe in inventors, reformers, pioneers, tinkerers, artists, visionaries, hackers, even crackpots. Individual people. America’s distinctive contributions to philosophy are Pragmatism and Self-Reliance. We favor improvisation over ideology and seek breakthroughs as we muddle through. This is the land that perfected the self-help book. Even death is not an entirely convincing force to us. The quintessentially American Ray Kurzweil–inventor, dreamer, one of a kind–prefers to give how-to advice on “living long enough to live forever.”
America’s faith in individuals caught the attention of Alexis de Tocqueville during his tour of the nation nearly two centuries ago. The French aristocrat “discerned a pattern he saw as defining how Americans attack problems: regular people initiating action in the context of communities,” notes Paul Carttar of the Bridgespan Group, an authority on the nation’s robust nonprofit and charitable culture. “Today, we can see that, far more than just a pattern of behavior, this describes an essential element of our cultural DNA.”
America is bicycle mechanics who figure out how to fly, newsboys who grow up to invent the lightbulb and scientists in muddy boots who defuse the population bomb by feeding more people on fewer resources. It is world-beating companies birthed in spare bedrooms. America is unplanned, nimble, fake-it-’til-you-make-it. It is tons of spaghetti thrown at thousands of walls in the confidence that somewhere, something will stick.
And when it does stick, that little speck or spark of something can grow to unimagined scale–can even become a neck-breaking force for some later generation to reckon with. The spine of American history is individual biographies: from Ben Franklin, the witty entrepreneur whose knack for science and diplomacy put a new nation on the map; to pioneer oilman Edwin Drake, who drilled Pennsylvania rock in search of an alternative to whale-oil lamps; to a daughter of former slaves, Sarah Breedlove Walker, who built a cosmetics empire from her wits and hard work; to Rachel Carson, the government biologist whose freelance writing helped launch modern environmentalism; to Bill Hewlett and David Packard, whose electronics company–created in a Palo Alto, Calif., garage–made its first big sale to Walt Disney’s movie studio–created in a Kansas City, Mo., garage.
In spite of those stories from the past, American people power looks small in comparison to Globalization, Digitalization, Disintermediation, Radicalization–the entropic forces at large in the world that are both vast and immediate, too big to fully grasp, yet too intrusive to ignore. And people power can easily be mistaken for selfishness, narcissism, irresponsibility.
The reason individualism is, ultimately, a powerful and hopeful thing is that people power leverages American abundance.
This fortunate, imperfect country happens to have more than enough of almost everything a nation could possibly need, thanks to the convergence of geography, conquest, wisdom and luck. America enjoys material abundance, and more abstract riches too. Buffered by oceans to the east and west, and peaceful neighbors to the north and south, America enjoys a degree of security unmatched by world powers in earlier ages. Despite periods of conflict over immigration, and the wasteful foolishness of racism and sexism, our well of human capital never runs dry. American academies and laboratories, richly endowed, produce a steady supply of research. And compared with many countries, we enjoy relatively open exchange of information, freedom of movement and access to finance.
From the beginning, we have argued over shares in this abundance. Who gets how much? What’s fair? What’s efficient? But with rare exceptions, those debates have been more civil than violent, thanks to enduring respect for the rule of law.
When abundance is combined with individualism, America is transformed into a gambler at roulette who bets on every number. Most of the bets don’t pay off–just as most new businesses fail, most ideas prove half-baked, most reforms sputter, and most inventions are quickly obsolete. None of that matters, because the gambler can afford to be wrong a lot, in exchange for getting it right. A system that incorporates failure as an inevitable part of success is the best hope of winning with the highly fallible human race.
Of course, the temptation never fades to put all our chips on a single wager. We become enamored with a leader who claims to have all the answers. We commission experts to design an ideal government bureaucracy. We flirt with ideologies and economic systems–this year we’ve been offered a menu ranging from nationalism to socialism to laissez-faire. Inevitably we wind up disillusioned when the leader falls short, the bureaucracy bogs down, the system or ideology proves impractical.
But somehow, our bone-deep pragmatism endures. America thrives under leaders who inspire initiative in others; we do best when government unleashes the people power. Top-down solutions involve a single bet on one person, one idea, one program. Bottom-up grabs a share of every bet in the whole casino.
In the cyclone of change, there is an impulse to say no. To try and somehow stop it from happening. You can hear it in even the most positive-sounding messages this year. “Make America Great Again”–Trump’s campaign slogan–strikes an upbeat tone. But listen carefully, and it says that America used to be great, until something changed. Bernie Sanders offered “A Future to Believe In.” Which presumably entails saying no to the future already unfolding.
Henry Adams got something right all those years ago in Paris: the anarchical forces of change are too strong to resist. They can only be shaped, perhaps exploited and ultimately lived with. But living with change, learning from it, making the best of it–that’s where the action is. These day-by-day, incremental responses are the true stuff of life, worked out by individuals, in communities, in families, by themselves.
When we look back across 240 years, creaky but wiser, we find the flawed but visionary founders placing their faith in yes instead of no. Yes to human rights, yes to the ideal of equality, yes to living free and to what they brilliantly called the pursuit of happiness. They recognized that life in a constantly modernizing world must be lived on an individual basis. There must be room to flourish and to fail, to dream big or to think small, to build a fortune or simply to tend a window box.
This Fourth of July, we celebrate this legacy. Though our leaders and institutions are having a tough time of it lately, as individuals we’re still going strong.
We see ourselves tackling local problems, undaunted by the knowledge that next week will bring new problems to tackle, and next month, and next year.
We see ourselves reaching out to one another, sharing talents, combining energies, offering comfort to those hurting and encouragement to those striving.
We see ourselves building new strength in once broken places, bending the machine age to serve human dignity, and crafting the perfect ice cream cone.
Under the dark cloud that seems to have settled over our times, we are weaving this silver lining. We individual human beings, pursuing our own happiness in our own imperfect ways, together make our own unstoppable force. Far from helpless in the grip of change, we have inherited a power more potent than any strongman, ideology or terror. It is ageless. Whether it is enough to win the future is a question born anew with each morning.
Safe to say, though: it’s our best bet.