Fourth of July: from patriotism to partisanship

US politics approaching levels of dysfunction not seen since the era of the American Civil War come into focus on Independence Day, writes University of Auckland lecturer Dr Paul Michel Taillon

This week, millions of Americans will celebrate the Fourth of July. In thousands of cities and towns they will gather for parades, picnics and fireworks. Through all the commemoration they will pay homage to the values set out in the Declaration of Independence and ritually reaffirm their patriotic unity.

Or will they?

This idyllic image of July 4th celebrations may have existed at some point in the past, perhaps in the “golden age” of the 1950s or maybe in the “good old days” before the Great War.

Lately, however, Independence Day celebrations seem to have been more about partisanship than patriotism. Not just “we-agree-to-disagree” partisanship, but “I-really-hate-you” partisanship. Take two news items from last year’s July 4th: the small town of Sheridan, Indiana, made international news when a parade float drew complaints for its depiction of President Barack Obama emerging from a toilet with a placard reading “Lying African.” (Pro-Trump messages also adorned the float. The unapologetic creator described himself as “a patriot”.) Meanwhile, in the rarefied environs of Hyannisport, Massachusetts, members of the Kennedy clan punctuated their July 4th party with a piñata in the effigy of Donald Trump.

Although it may be a stretch to compare the two, these stories highlight the United States’ polarised political climate. Both displays indicate not only a lack of trust in the opposition, but also a lack of respect. It’s hard to imagine the nastiness and blatant racism of the Sheridan, Indiana, float in Fourth of Julys past. (Then again it was hard to imagine an African American president a generation ago.)

Current research and commentary emphasises the fracturing of political community in the United States. A year ago, the Pew Research Center released findings confirming the growing partisan negativity in American politics. For the first time since 1992 (the start-point of the Pew study) the majority of Democrats and Republicans view each other “very unfavourably”. Things have gotten worse since the 2016 election.

"When a liberal comedian appears with a mock, severed head of Donald Trump and when the President’s son says of Democratic opponents, 'they’re not even people',” columnist Thomas Friedman concludes, “you are heading to a very dark place”.

If the political leaders of the 1790s could do it, maybe there is hope that today’s leaders in the United States can do likewise?

The way I see it—and I’m not alone among historians—partisan rancour, distrust of governing institutions, and dysfunctional politics are approaching levels not seen since the era of the American Civil War and Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s.

That said, July 4th celebrations have never been free of partisanship. Historian Sean Wilentz reminds us that from the very beginning of the American Republic, Independence Day provided an occasion for polemical rhetoric. This should come as no surprise – Independence Day remembrance became a big deal during the 1790s, the same period that produced the nation’s first political parties.

The founding generation of national leaders, the ones who created the framework of American government, laboured at a time of national peril, even crisis. For those men, the new nation’s future—its very soul—turned on such matters as whether or not to create a national bank or become involved in European conflicts (this was the era of the French Revolution when everything seemed up for grabs).

In what became an atmosphere of intense suspicion and paranoia, those men were not inclined to be generous to political opponents, regarding them as existential threats. (To get an idea of that moment, go to New York City and see the hip-hop musical Hamilton, or short of that, pick up the soundtrack.)

What’s noteworthy is that as they fractured into factions, they stepped back from the brink in the election of 1800. The defeated Federalists willingly handed over the White House to the Jefferson-Republicans, setting a precedent for peaceful transfer of government.

If the political leaders of the 1790s could do it, maybe there is hope that today’s leaders in the United States can do likewise? Unfortunately, I do not see much in the current American landscape that gives me hope. Donald Trump and the nature of today’s media only accelerate the breakdown of trust and shared notions of truth that make functioning democratic institutions possible. For better or worse, one way or another, the venerable Fourth of July holiday will figure in this process. Let’s see how it goes.

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