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Deep inequality, vicious partisanship and recriminations over the assault on Capitol Hill will make American idealism hard to come by this Independence Day

A damaged American flag is unfurled and carried to a fire pit to be retired at a veterans' service post in Tulsa, Okla., on June 14. This July 4 will be the 246th anniversary of the United States declaring its independence.Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP

David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.

John F. Kennedy spoke for his own country, when, in a summertime address in the Assembly Hall at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt six decades ago, he said, “Time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life.”

For Mr. Kennedy’s country – first a colony and then a republic, first ruled by aristocrats and then by democrats, first an agrarian empire and then a manufacturing powerhouse, first a land of resourceful tinkerers and then a centre of innovative technology, first a hotbed of revolution and then a mature nation, first a weakling among the world’s powers and then a superpower – never has stood still.

Indeed, change has been a constant element of the American story, not gradual, the way the Iron Age followed the Bronze Age, but swift (the movement of the Democrats from hidebound tradition to social and economic reform, for example) and occasionally dizzyingly fast (the town of Winchester, Va., changed hands 72 times in the Civil War, 13 times in one day alone).

And now, as the United States prepares for its July 4 celebration of the 246th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence, the changes the country has experienced stand in sharp, even stunning, relief.

A land founded in idealism is wracked with cynicism. A society founded in boundless opportunity is shackled with a yawning wealth gap.

A country that was founded by an insurrection against the Parliament in London is still recovering from recriminations over an insurrection at the Capitol in Washington.

A society that in the past three-quarters of a century has broadened its views of rights – for minorities, for LGBTQ people, for the disabled and in the arena of health care – now has a Supreme Court that is restricting abortion rights even as it broadens protections for gun possession and public prayer.

A culture that always looked to the future is fighting about the meaning of its past. Indeed, the next sentence of Mr. Kennedy’s speech at that famous German church – a prescient warning from the Cold War easily applied to our time of cold contempt for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – has fresh meaning this Independence Day weekend: “Those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”

And as the stunning congressional hearings into the insurrection on the Capitol showed in dramatic fashion this week, there is one overriding transformation in the Republic of Change that is even more ominous: A country whose first name is “United” is anything but.

July 4 moments of recent years: Fireworks explode over the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument in 2018, Donald and Melania Trump wave at a ‘Salute to America’ at the Lincoln Memorial in 2019; U.S. President Joe Biden holds a card in 2021 with the number of Americans killed by COVID-19 so far. Alex Wong/Getty Images; Susan Walsh/AFP/Getty Images; Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

There is no status quo in the United States.

Men and women who came of age in the Age of Kennedy are likely freighted with memories of the glories of American life such as economic security and pride in unimaginable achievements such as the lunar landing and the election of a Black president. In their roughly 70 years of being alive, they would have witnessed enormous political change.

Six decades ago, the American South was segregated, its politics so dominated by one-party rule that all 22 Senate seats of the states of the Old Confederacy were held by Democrats. Today, 18 of those seats are held by Republicans.

In the election that took Mr. Kennedy to the White House, the three states of northern New England all voted Republican. In the last five elections, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont voted for the Democratic candidate.

In that 1960 election, the three states of the West Coast voted Republican. In the last eight elections, Washington State, Oregon and California voted Democratic. In the Kennedy years, four Georgia counties with significant Black populations had fewer than 10 African-Americans who were even registered to vote. Both candidates in this fall’s Senate race are Black.

In the 1960 presidential campaign, Richard M. Nixon took 54 per cent of the vote of college-educated Americans over Mr. Kennedy, a Harvard graduate with a Pulitzer Prize. In the 2020 election, Joe Biden took 61 per cent of the college-educated vote against Donald Trump, who holds an Ivy League degree.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon take part in a TV election debate in 1960.The Associated Press

The Republican platform created for Mr. Nixon’s campaign against Mr. Kennedy specifically and forcefully cited the party’s support for NATO. The last Republican president, Mr. Trump, was contemptuous of NATO. That 1960 GOP election manifesto called for “continued vigorous enforcement of the civil rights laws to guarantee the right to vote to all citizens in all areas of the country.” Today’s Republicans have erected barriers to minority votes.

And consider this: At the turn of the last century, Republican Senator Jonathan Prentiss Dolliver of Iowa said that his state would “go Democratic when hell went Methodist.” The Democrats have carried Iowa in six of the last nine presidential elections.

In the 1960 election, men voted at a greater rate than women. In the 2020 election, women voted at a greater rate than men. In 1960, Mr. Nixon captured the female vote by a 51-49 percentage-point margin. In the 2020 election, Mr. Biden prevailed over Mr. Trump by a 57-42 margin.

In Mr. Kennedy’s time, Democrats employed the filibuster and regarded it as a respectable and responsible emblem of Capitol Hill procedure. Today it is the Republicans who cling to the filibuster and who regard it as a shield against Democratic legislation they believe contains traces of socialist ideology.

In the half-century and more after 1950, the stewards of tradition and the practitioners of prudence largely were Republicans while the rebels and disrupters almost always were Democrats. Now that is reversed. “The left is now widely seen as the schoolmarm of American public life, and the right is associated with the gleeful violation of convention,” Nate Hochman, a fellow at National Review, once regarded as the leading edge of conservative thinking, wrote last month in The New York Times.

“When I was young, the Republican Party had a lot of moderates, and it was a party that had its roots in the North from the Civil War,” Democratic Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who was 14 in 1960, said in an interview. “Franklin Roosevelt made a lot of people who might have been Republicans into Democrats. There was a balance in politics. People in both parties knew they could only go so far. But that balance is gone, and those limits are gone. So are a lot of the balances and limits in our society.”

A hand-coloured print published in the mid-19th century shows the moment in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was presented to John Hancock, seated at right. As president of the Second Continental Congress, he would be first to sign the document.Library of Congress

The leading American historian of his generation, Henry Adams (1838-1918), a man with deep roots in the enterprise of making America (he was the great-grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the second president; he was grandson of another chief executive and son of Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War-era ambassador to Great Britain) was possessed of an unusually trenchant perspective about the country his family did so much to shape. In his most famous work, The Education of Henry Adams, published posthumously and awarded the 1919 Pulitzer Prize, he spoke of how “the old universe was thrown into the ash-heap and a new one created.”

The American ash heap of history is overflowing.

In that ash heap are “bundling boards” that kept men and women apart in bed; schoolhouse hornbooks that educated young children; Conestoga wagons that travelled the Great Plains to the open West; blacksmith shops, all-male suffrage, Prohibition, collegiate goldfish-swallowing, telephone booths and Howard Johnson’s restaurants – all remnants of a fast-receding past.

“In nature as in human society, everything is in flux,” David Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Stanford University, told me. “It is especially true in the United States, for there is no such thing as a constant in American history. It is an illusion to think otherwise.”

While it was the Enlightenment that fired the American revolutionaries being celebrated this week, things came uncorked with the application of mechanical power to what had been human and animal effort. “It’s not just change, but the rate of change,” Prof. Kennedy explained. “We may pride ourselves on the dynamism of our society but we are surprised when change occurs. Often it is more change than we bargained for.”

And the engine of change? Here an answer to a query posed to British prime minister Harold Macmillan is appropriate: “Events, dear boy, events.”

In American history those events have included a Civil War that ended slavery; a Gilded Age that created vast fortunes and robber barons; a brief 1898 conflict with Spain that created American imperialism; two World Wars that ended American “splendid isolation”; vast consumer prosperity that the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called the “affluent society”; the Vietnam War and Watergate, which spawned deep suspicion of government and of authority; a hostage crisis in Iran that illuminated the limits of American power; cultural transformation that changed “privilege” from an attribute sought after into one apologized for; a searing racial reckoning that awakened Americans to long patterns of discrimination; and the ascendancy of social disruption that brought, among other things, the internet, smartphones, social media and Mr. Trump.

A woman takes a picture on her phone as Donald Trump arrives for a 2018 rally in Cincinnati.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

More broadly, the powers that be have become the powers that were.

Network television, once dominant in news and entertainment, is in decline; cable outlets, Netflix and other streaming services have surpassed it in profit and influence. U.S. Steel, once a symbol of American manufacturing supremacy, is a shadow of its once all-powerful (and all-profitable) self; its towering headquarters building in Pittsburgh now bears the name of UPMC, the local health care giant.

The United States Chamber of Commerce, once a huge influence in the Republican Party, is sometimes derided as a symbol of yesterday’s economy; the new warriors of the Trump insurgency regard it a symbol of arrogant corporatism and are critical of the group’s recent congeniality – inconceivable only a generation ago – toward Democratic political candidates.

The most visible political element is the change in American civic life – never placid but seldom as full of hostility as it is today, when Americans are divided over mask mandates, vaccinations, the legitimacy of elected officials and even elections themselves.

“Many of these changes are reactions to the previous changes,” said former Democratic representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, whose own life – closeted homosexuality followed by gay activism – itself represents vast change. “The South going Republican was a reaction to the Democrats becoming a party of the left. The change my generation is seeing is no more drastic than the change my parents saw. Things in this country change rapidly.”

Kennedy meets Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker in Ottawa in 1961.The Canadian Press

It all provides a stark contrast with the country’s northern neighbours.

Canada is by no means a static country. Consider, as a handful of examples, how its view of the treatment of Indigenous peoples has changed in even the past two years, or how Quebec has slipped from church influence since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, or how Saskatchewan has moved from Co-operative Commonwealth Federation-New Democratic Party socialism to its modern-day centre-right posture. And though Western Canada flirted with the Liberals in the Trudeaumania 1968 election, the region generally has favoured conservative parties since then.

But there is no real Canadian analogue to an entire region shifting its political profile the way the American South went Republican, a political transformation that occurred in large measure because of the determination of the Democrats, from Lyndon B. Johnson forward, to embrace the once-forbidden ethic of civil rights. Mr. Johnson’s native state, for example, elected only Democrats to the governor’s office for the 126 years beginning in 1874; no Democrat has won a statewide race in Texas since November, 1994.

“We haven’t gone through the kind of radical changes that the Americans have gone through,” said rector Christopher Adams, a political scientist and polling expert at Winnipeg’s St. Paul’s College. “The United States is less moderate a country than Canada, and we haven’t had the sort of major realignments that there have been in the U.S. Here the Conservative Party has generally remained a conservative party. It has tacked to the centre or to the right but it has not represented a very different part of the political spectrum.”

A woman holds an American flag at a Black history parade in Atlanta this past June 18. This year was the first time June 19, or Juneteenth – a commemoration of the end of chattel slavery in Texas in 1865 – was a federal holiday, just like July 4.Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Though the Fourth of July customarily prompts national celebrations, there is little celebratory spirit in 2020s America.

This year there will be no speech remotely like that delivered by Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886), the father of Henry Adams, who in 1876 marked the centenary of American independence by saying, “Let us labour continually to keep the advance in civilization as it becomes us to do after the struggles of the past, so that the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which we have honourably secured, may be firmly entailed upon the ever enlarging generations of mankind.”

Today progressives refuse to buy pillows from a company headed by a Trump supporter. Conservatives are mounting a cultural war against the Walt Disney Company. Today the phrase “civil war” is tossed around in lower-case letters. Today Americans view with sadness and with fear both the prospects for democratic rule in the United States and the notion of “the next civil war” that the Canadian writer Stephen Marche set out with ruthless realism in his 2022 book of that bracing title.

“If the American experiment fails, and it is failing, the world will be poorer, more brutal, lesser,” Mr. Marche wrote. “The world needs America. It needs the idea of America, the American faith, even if that idea was only ever a half-truth. The rest of the world needs to imagine a place where you can become yourself, where you can shed your past, where contradictions that lead to genocide elsewhere flourish into prosperity.”

Today Americans who grew up with the catchphrase “greatest nation on Earth” might view with bitter recognition the view of the British historian Andrew Roberts, who in his history of the English-speaking peoples in the 20th century wrote of Americans, “Like the Romans, they would at times be ruthless, at times self-indulgent, and they, too, sometimes would find that the greatest danger to their continued imperium came not from their declared enemies without, but rather from vociferous critics from within their own society.”

But surely the greatest sadness might come from an American who encounters the 1924 novel Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth, who wrote of a protagonist’s worship of all things American: “He loved America. When a billet was good he said ‘America.’ When a position had been well fortified he said ‘America.’ Of a ‘fine’ lieutenant he would say ‘America,’ and because I was a good shot he would say ‘America’ when I scored bulls-eyes.”

Today no one would write that. And to many Americans, if not to others elsewhere, that is the biggest, and by far the saddest, change of all.

David Shribman on U.S. politics: More from The Globe and Mail

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