Dream America on July 4th (and then to work!)

We hold these truths to be self-evident…. Ah the words still stir positive emotions in me even as our country seems to careen towards a moral and political abyss. Where to look for inspiration, for hope, on this Independence Day?

In past years, I often turned to Frederick Douglass, whose “What to The Slave is the 4th of July” remains one of the great pieces of American oratory. And I’ve turned to Jefferson and to Dewey, or to the ever ebullient Walt Whitman. During the pandemic, I found my points of orientation in the public intellectuals Darren Walker (Ford Foundation) and Danielle Allen (Harvard). They saw in our Independence Day a reminder to do better, to strive for more in our public life than provided by the status quo.

This year I turn again to my old teacher, the philosopher Richard Rorty, who saw with uncanny perspicacity what dangers would face the Republic. In the late 1990s he wrote that before too long the following would happen:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

Many quoted this passage in 2016, and I trust many will return to it again. Rorty was good at sketching out where our political crises were likely to come from.

Dick was even better at showing that in the face of those crises we should form alliances to create political changes that would ease the burdens of the most vulnerable while creating more space for additional, perhaps more thoroughgoing reform. This is the hard work of coalition politics. The work not of canceling those with whom one disagrees but of finding ways to work across differences for goals of common interest. Images of those common interests, our common interest, are made by artists — by poets, novelists, painters, and others who can imagine our community with a brighter future. We might call these dreamers:

You cannot urge national political renewal on the basis of descriptions of fact. You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in the terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.

Sometimes it’s especially hard to summon those feelings of loyalty; sometimes it’s hard to dream. But that’s when it’s time to work with others to become practical idealists, working together to create the conditions for what we hope our country can become. Let’s recommit to that today, July 4th.

1 thought on “Dream America on July 4th (and then to work!)”

  1. Thoughtful, informed, on target. Might add Pascal: “Never is evil done so thoroughly or so well as when it is done in a good cause.”
    Well done,
    Thank you.

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