“The best lack all conviction,
While the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
– William Butler Yeats
This week, Americans will celebrate our independence from Britain—and, if our patriotism hasn’t been sabotaged by revisionist history — all the good that America has done since 1776. But lurking amid our backyard festivities will be a much more subtle and powerful force — apathy — that has affected our society far more than British imperialism ever did.
Ironically, as the ranks of the apathetic have grown, the two extremes of the partisan spectrum have become more shrill, drowning out the remaining voices of reason. This is tragic for our civil affairs, as many have abandoned not only the toxic discourse of national politics, but also the truly important conversations in our communities and cities; everyone assumes that everyone else, neighbors included, has an opposing agenda. As a result, only the shrill are heard, fueling the cycle of civic abandonment.
Few episodes in modern history better exemplify the fracturing of American civil society than the presidential election of 2016. On the one hand, diehard left-wingers viewed Hillary Clinton as the nation’s savior; on the other hand, devoted right-wingers found a peace with Donald Trump’s past, largely because of their fear of Clinton. In between those poles, a political amalgam of socialists and “Never-Trumpers” either stayed home or voted for inconsequential third-party candidates.
There are political explanations, of course, for the result of the election. But those analyses reflect a deeper, underlying truth about modern America: we no longer get along, and we are losing our ability even to try.
Elections may be the clearest manifestations of this phenomenon, but they are not alone. In our schools, our churches, our workplaces, our colleges, and even in our athletics, we withdraw into familiar, comfortable groups; we find it difficult to interact with those who have different opinions. And rather than merely disagree, we label others with disdain, with members of Congress inciting discord and excoriating judicial nominees for being Christian.
Dissension is not new, of course. American history is replete with examples of significant disagreements and even turmoil. But those have all been settled, with the lone exception of the Civil War, with minimal violence. That alone is impressive, considering our ethnic pluralism, which dates to the colonial era and which has been sustained throughout the nation’s history. But rather than celebrate our mostly successful attempt at the “melting pot,” we have atomized society into identity groups.
We are, in the words of Robert Putnam, “bowling alone.” Rotary Club, Kiwanis International, Boy Scouts of America — and yes, bowling leagues — have all seen precipitous decreases in membership. The disintegration of these “mediating institutions” has, ironically, provided a vacuum into which the polarizing forces have moved, further fracturing society.
Consequently, even on Independence Day, taking pride in being American has become challenging. Schools no longer cultivate a proper pride in the ideals of America, as the Left claims that our society is forever sullied by past social transgressions such as slavery; never mind that we’re the only civilization in the history of the world to end slavery on our own accord, which is a testament to our society. The anti-American narrative is more important than the facts.
The failure to teach our youth the heroes and grand narrative of the American experiment — dare I say, American exceptionalism — would be harmful enough. The professoriate been even worse, intentionally undermining those shared values that bind us together as a polity.
The consequences of that devolution cannot be overstated. The American “center,” to the extent it exists, is an apathetic lot. Either a new source of social and political energy will emerge and bolster one of the poles, thereby drawing the apathetic center back into active civic engagement, or the center, as Continuing as “three Americas” — Left, Right, and apathetic — is a recipe for social disaster and civilizational decline.
Thus, on this Independence Day, let us begin the long process of rejuvenating our public life. Start small. Re-read the Declaration of Independence. Listen to John Philip Souza’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Or invite your neighbor, who just might disagree with you, to your backyard.
Should we fail to do so, we will all share in the burden of having ended what Abraham Lincoln dubbed “the last best hope” for humanity.
This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on July 5, 2018.