Today is America’s birthday — or maybe not. I guess it depends on what one considers the birthday — the day the Declaration of Independence was signed (well, not really signed; July 4, 1776 is the date Congress approved its wording and has become the accepted birth date; for more information, see its history here) or perhaps the day the Constitution was ratified (June 21, 1788). (Coincidentally, June 21 is also the summer solstice and my anniversary, making the date one of even greater import than you previously imagined :).) The truth is every country needs a birth date, and July 4 is America’s by consensus and tradition.
Interestingly, July 4 is the one day of the year when I can rely on both Republicans and Democrats being willing to bury the hatchet for 60 minutes to jointly wish long life to the grand experiment. Sadly, that burying really gets strained after 60 minutes. What is it that makes red and blue Americans think unpatriotic thoughts about those who disagree with them?
Today’s partisan fights are similar to those that were fought in America’s toddler years but with a significant — nay monumental — difference: In America’s toddler years, with all of the partisanship sniping that occurred, there was a magic word that everyone uttered and practiced: compromise. Today, compromise has a different meaning.
Today, compromise means dig in one’s heels and refuse to give any ground. Ideology means much more to partisans than does negotiation — and political parties are greatly more partisan than ever before. Also different are the people who are the soldiers in the partisan wars.
In America’s toddler years, it was understood, as part of the makeup of partisan politicians, that to gain a little, you give a little and, as you meet in the middle, you are really accomplishing what is ultimately the best for America as a whole. Such attitudes required intellects of genius (does anyone dispute the intellectual prowess of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Burr, Adams, and the congressmen who wrote and approved both the Declaration of Independence and, ultimately, the Constitution by which we are still governed?) and, much more importantly, flexible spines (character). Sadly, today’s congresspeople seem to lack both characteristics — there is no Jefferson or Franklin coming to the fore to lead us, and the spines are rigid; if they flex, they will snap, not bend.
Today, every advocacy group has its pledge to be signed and then rigidly adhered to — or else. And the “or else” is what is causing America the heartache and angst of its teen years. Every teenager (and every two- and three-year-old) goes through a stage that every parent dreads — the stage where they shut down their hearing and their flexibility and take firm, rigid stances, usually in defiance of their parents — the infamous “no syndrome” that for toddlers we call the Terrible Two’s. The “or else” is the threat of no fund raising and no votes for the political candidate who violates a signed pledge regardless of the radical interpretation given to the pledge’s meaning or the harm it may do the country.
And that is the change, the change that has defied the natural order of growth in America. Over the course of 235 years, America has created a class in what was supposed to be an egalitarian (or relatively egalitarian) society that believes it is entitled to harvest all that it can for personal gain at everyone else’s expense: the class of politicians who believe that their number one priority is not America, but perpetuating themselves in a powerful and highly financially rewarding job.
The difference between Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Adams of 1776 and Boehner, Cantor, McConnell, Pelosi, and Reid of 2011 is that the class of 1776 did not consider themselves indispensable. They did not see their political role as a career path toward riches and power; rather, they saw themselves as guardians of a fragile newborn. Remember that many wanted to make Washington king of the new country, but he turned it down. And it was Washington who established the tradition of serving no more than two terms as president when he could have easily been elected to more.
Do you believe Boehner, Cantor, McConnell, Pelosi, or Reid — or nearly any other member of Congress today — would imitate Washington if given the chance?
Yes, today is America’s 235th birthday and, for the most part, America has grown and matured. Alas, it has not grown into adulthood yet. Our political class continues to hold America back, continues to act irresponsibly, continues to make the ostrich look like an intellectual power, and continues to make many Americans wish for the reincarnation of the class of 1776. As I wish America a happy birthday, I hold open the door to the political class of 2011 to look back to that first class and think about emulating the America first approach of our founders.
My first birthday wish for America is that the political class of 2011 do some growing up and stop signing pledges that box them — and America — into a corner from which there is no easy escape. My second birthday wish is that the political class awaken to the notion that, by putting America as a whole first and their personal careers last, they will create a foundation from which America can continue to grow into greatness for another 235 years.
Happy 235th birthday, America! May you have hundreds more!