What does the future hold for the Great Experiment?

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On January 9th of 1790, just a year and a half after the Constitution was finally ratified, George Washington wrote a letter to Catharine Sawbridge McCauley Graham, a prominent English historian and supporter of the American Revolution. 

“The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by reasonable compact, in civil society,” Washington wrote. 

In his letter, Washington did not use the phrase “great experiment” lightly. Democracies in ancient civilizations had been tried before but ultimately failed. The American Revolution, where a fledgling collection of colonies were able to declare independence and overcome the mighty force of the British empire, was followed by the French Revolution in the late 1780s, which strived for greater representation but ultimately failed when Napoleon assumed power after a military coup. 

Yet, existing nations in Europe – awakened to the power that resides in the will of the people – continued to watch as the newly formed democracy across the Pacific Ocean managed to survive. 

Even as the population grew and prospered, the philosophical tenet that “all men are created equal” – contradicted in reality by the abhorrent practice of slavery and unjust subjugation of indigenous people - persisted. 

And even when, less than a century after the Declaration of Independence, those bonds of brotherhood were broken by a civil war that claimed the lives of an estimated 750,000 people, the nation, as a whole, remained the United States of America. 

The great experiment has managed to survive what destroyed other democracies. 

Since the Civil War, the United States has endured and, in some cases, been victorious in seven bloody wars with current engagement, by proxy, in an eighth. The nation has survived the Great Depression, the Great Recession and a pandemic that took more than one million lives and shut down the global economy for 18 months. The nation has experienced periods of significant, long-time-coming civil unrest as marginalized American citizens demanded their rightful place at the table of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

Yet, here we are, just days away from the 246th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And the success of the great experiment may be more in question than at any time in recent history.

According to poll – conducted by highly respected pollsters Republican Neil Newhouse and Democrat Joel Benenson for the Institute of Politics with the University of Chicago – “a majority of Americans feel ‘the government is corrupt and rigged against everyday people like me’”, including 73 percent of voters who identified themselves as “strong Republicans”. Slightly more than half who called themselves “very liberal” agreed with the statement.  

Almost half – 49 percent – agreed that they “feel more and more like a stranger in my own country”, including 69 percent of “strong Republicans” and 49 percent of “very liberal” voters agreed.

Ironically, in the midst of tremendous partisan divide, voters have one thing in common: the “contempt” each held for members of the opposing political party.

Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of voters who called themselves Republicans and 74 percent who identify as Democrats feel that members of the other political party “are generally bullies who want to impose their political beliefs on those who disagree.”

The results also reflect the extent to which political hostilities have impacted people’s relationships. 

As was reported in the findings, a quarter of those surveyed reported avoiding friends and relatives or actually losing friends over politics. Some 38 percent say they have “unfriended or stopped following someone on social media because of their political views.” One in five said they have quit social media altogether because of the tone of political conversation. 

The poll also explored the role respondents feel the media has played in creating the division among voters. 

“Most Americans across the political spectrum, 78 percent in all, report regularly turning to their local news as a source for information,” the report read. “Almost as many, 66 percent, point to the major national network newscasts. And each get relatively high marks when voters are asked whether these news sources ‘make a good faith effort to report the news,’ rather than ‘intentionally trying to mislead their viewers and readers to persuade people to take a political point of view.’

“But the various cable news stations and social media platforms, which draw more niche audiences, score less well in the survey as good faith conveyors of information,” the report continued. “And stark divisions appear by party and philosophy in voter evaluations of them.”

Polls are designed to ask questions, not answer them. Those answers, if they are to be found, lie elsewhere.

In his farewell address to the nation, then-President George Washington, who was non-partisan, warned of the danger political parties meant for democracy. 

"The spirit of party serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration,” he said. “It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.”

Thomas Jefferson, another “founding father”, highly valued the vital role of a free press in a democracy but stressed the importance of being truthful. In Jefferson’s words: "Since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press confined to truth needs no other legal restraint.”

Those warnings have largely gone unheeded. What words are there for our nation when, on the eve of our 246th celebration of the Declaration of Independence, we find ourselves in a place where many feel that extremist views are controlling the narrative and the hope for moderation and compromise is dwindling?

The Valley Courier had the opportunity to ask that question of Senator John Hickenlooper while he was visiting ASU this week.

“People forget, during the Revolutionary War after the Battle of Valley Forge, we thought we were going to lose. 

“Washington had his rag-tag army in New Jersey before the Battle of Trenton, and Thomas Paine was trying to figure out how to inspire the troops and the people. 

“He was in the pouring rain. He didn’t have a desk - he was using a drumhead as a writing desk. And he wrote, ‘Without great struggle, there can be no glorious triumph.’ That’s a paraphrase, but those words…those words inspired the revolution to success. It was a citizen’s army that was fighting for its freedom. It was all on the table. 

“Well, we’re in that same kind of place. We’re losing standards and values that we always took for granted. One example - that the government would not value one religion over another. I grew up with that! We all grew up with that. Many of the founding fathers were tremendous Christians, but they were adamant that the nation would not favor one religion over another.

“I’m a hopeless optimist. And I think we’re close, but I think we’ll hold. We have, so far.”

Thomas Paine’s quote actually reads, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow.”

 

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