And, 238 years later, the argument continues. A little too loudly, sometimes, but such are the tendencies of a living democracy.
Then, it was about what a king and parliament could impose upon a people from thousands of miles away. Now, it’s about whether a corporation has the same legal standing as an individual, what kind of health benefits the government can require businesses to provide to their employees, to what extent the country and its member states can respond to the scourge of gun violence.
That’s the nature of American democracy: a push and pull that occurs – or is supposed to occur – within the boundaries of the Constitution and perhaps even common sense. That leaves a lot of room for argument and, when Americans are according their grand experiment the decent respect that it deserves, they can recognize that to oppose or support issues such as gun control falls well within the broad parameters of normal American life. So, too, do the arguments over health insurance, same-sex marriage, environmental protection, affirmative action and all the other hot-button issues that tear at the fabric that makes the country whole.
What’s different? Maybe not so much. As political eras change, frustrations start to simmer. It happened in the late 1960s as the New Deal/Great Society period gave way to a long period of conservatism ushered in by Richard Nixon and personified by Ronald Reagan.
Did the election of Barack Obama mark the start of a new liberal era? That’s hard to say definitively, but timing, tempers and changing demographics suggest it may be so. Younger people – for whom same-sex marriage is about as controversial as a yawn – are trending toward Democrats. So are minorities, who are making up an ever-greater proportion of the electorate.
But there are other factors that have made this an especially choleric period. The 24-hour news cycle, nourished by ideologues from the left and right, contributes to an unwillingness to give the other side any credit. So, especially, does the Internet, where information – more than a little of it misleading or simply false – stokes passions that may already be elevated.
Is that what July 4, 1776, was all about? Yes, without a doubt. It may be a particularly contentious period in American life, but the Founding Fathers understood that challenges lay ahead. Responding to a questioner asking what the just-concluded Constitutional Convention of 1787 had produced, Benjamin Franklin responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The question is whether threats to the republic come more from efforts surrounding gun control and other hot-button issues, or from a furious electorate that comprehends dissenting views not just as wrong or even dangerous, but actually, fundamentally un-American.
Here’s what Americans of good faith must, by definition, acknowledge: These are all difficult and legitimate questions whose answers are rarely found in placards and angry emails. The American experiment – glorious, messy and ongoing – easily encompasses most positions of conservatives and liberals. The answer, in part, is to use today’s observances to recommit to the peculiar American notion that more unites the disparate people of this country than divides them, and that the rest is manageable.