While scrolling through various news sites on the eve of the 241st anniversary of the United States’ independence from England, I noticed two things: First, the usual articles this time of year about “What it means to be an American,” and second, stories of the “Americans are more divided than ever” ilk. That got me thinking: Is that what it means to be an American? Perpetual disagreement?
After all, the Declaration of Independence was a list of the colonies’ causes for separation from England, our forefathers’ disagreements with King George’s “repeated injuries and usurpations.” The culmination of our independence, the Constitution, was a perfect case study in disagreement. How much federal power was too much? How much power should the states retain? What about slavery? How should the executive be organized? What about representation in the Congress? Debates over ratification were fierce, and several of the final votes within the states were nail-biters, particularly in the important states of Virginia and New York.
Major disagreements over the scope of power and freedom did not end with New Hampshire’s ratification of the Constitution in 1788 and the start of George Washington’s presidency a year later. The Civil War, World War I, the New Deal, World War II, Vietnam and the Great Society, the Cold War, the “culture wars,” tariffs and taxation have all tested our ability to find areas of agreement, even when there seemed to be none to find.
To put it another way, there has always been a tension in America between the costs and benefits of too much government and too much individual freedom. The Founding Fathers put a structure in place that was meant to safeguard certain inalienable rights by putting limits on how the federal government could act. And yet, as we know, the power of those in Washington, D.C., has grown over time, in part because of legitimate needs, but also because of perceived needs.
The challenges we face are nothing new—quite the contrary, actually. Such trials are basically adaptations on the same underlying issues humans have confronted since time immemorial, including those that have led to large expansions in the size and scope of the federal government. Because human nature remains constant, much to the chagrin of progressives, it is unsurprising that disagreement persists.
Maybe historians will look back at this era as an aberration, a culmination of wacky circumstances. But over the last century, the left—historically intermittently aligned with the Democratic Party, but seemingly now synonymous—has taken tortoise-like steps towards socialism-lite. It might then seem unsurprising that a Gallup poll last year found millennials hold almost equally positive views about socialism as they do about capitalism. Or that nearly 60 percent of Democrats and those that lean Democratic have a positive view of socialism.
Indeed, it borders on the absurd how a self-avowed socialist, an ideology supposedly relegated to the ash-heap of history not 30 years ago, was almost a major-party nominee for president of the United States.
The legend goes that, as Benjamin Franklin exited the Constitutional Convention, when asked by an onlooker what kind of government had been created, he replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” If the political left has in fact embraced the principles of European democratic-socialism, another significant disagreement might well be on America’s horizon.•
Parr is a student at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis and is treasurer of the Indiana Young Republicans. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.