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Mr. Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.
The heart does not exactly swell with patriotic pride this Independence Day, as the gut absorbs one dizzying, disorienting blow after the next. Our sense of who we are, our very identity as Americans, feels assaulted and violated. Amid profound, painful regression on issue after issue, we are left gasping for breath.
Our nation seems more irreparably divided than ever before in my lifetime, barreling down a parallel path, perhaps, to the one our forebearers traveled in the 1850s.
What we do now matters urgently. And the American identity that we still share matters too, not least because it must inform and inspire a common effort, across our differences, to find our way out and forward. I believe we still can agree on a set of ideas — values and aspirations — enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, 246 years on.
In our founding, I see flawed genius. In the declaration we celebrate, I see a statement of purpose. In our Constitution, I see our founders entrusting each generation to fix what the preceding one was unwilling to repair.
To me, the callous cruelty of our founders — at least 34 of the 56 men who signed the declaration also enslaved human beings — is less remarkable than what they set in motion, however contradictory. They initiated a grand, complicated experiment with self-government that made possible abolition and suffrage, worker’s rights and civil rights and women’s rights, however slowly and unevenly. More astounding still, Black people and brown people, the Indigenous and the immigrant, L.G.B.T.Q. people and people with disabilities, all claimed the American project as our own and expanded the circle of inclusion and opportunity.
Our founders bequeathed to us something radical, something unprecedented: the tools with which to build a multiracial, multiethnic, pluralist democracy that extends the privilege of American identity to all.
My love of America — of the American idea — is unwavering. This laboratory of liberty is worth saving, worth improving.
But I fear we are mired in a culture of absolutism and tearing ourselves apart at the seams.
Everything right now, it seems, is black or white, all or nothing, perfect or unacceptable. Every venue has become a theater for performatively asserting our own virtue or righteousness, or for denying someone else’s. The so-called microaggressions keep getting smaller, the disproportionate penalties bigger. Nuance and complexity, let alone compromise, are nowhere to be found. In their place is a pervasive, paralyzing cynicism. And in turn, our extreme challenges remain extremely unsolved.
Even among those with whom we largely agree, we’ve normalized intolerance and incivility. Among those with whom we disagree, we shame and cancel. We dehumanize and demonize.
Certainly, not everyone is equally culpable or complicit. To suggest that the people and groups denigrating human rights and human dignity are somehow on equal footing with those of us defending them is wrong. This would imply a false moral equivalence.
And make no mistake about my own view: The advocacy of those working to reimagine our society is of a different category from — asymmetrical to — the backlash of those rolling back our rights and fighting to restore an unequal past. The former is challenging us to be better, more inclusive, more equitable. The latter too often is daring us to be worse.
At the same time, at least one outcome of the breakdown is clear and present for us all: a toxicity that threatens to asphyxiate our democracy. Across our country, a foul spirit of nihilism has displaced a forgiving spirit of grace.
In our distorted media, the few loudest voices garner the most coverage and clicks while the conglomerates and social networks reap the rewards. These extremes beget more extremes, coarsening our discourse.
In our politics, we delineate districts and finance campaigns and decide elections in a way that favors purity over persuasion, thus further dividing our national community. Worse, a minoritarian stranglehold — a tyranny of the minority — is suffocating both our democracy and our trust in its institutions.
Finally, inequalities of all kinds both aggravate our challenges and prevent us from joining together in common cause to solve them. For too many Americans — of every color and creed, in red states and blue — the mobility escalator has ground to a halt, setting in place an inescapable, insidious hopelessness. When so many millions live on an economic precipice, they respond with anxiety, resentment and grievance; the forces exploiting them, with ongoing mendacity and impunity.
To break the vicious cycle in which we have trapped ourselves, we must define and agree on new rules of engagement for the commons, online and off.
First, we must make new, open space: places where people of good will, operating in good faith, can speak and listen, with authenticity and vulnerability, without fear that they’re using the wrong word or phrase, without self-censorship. Perhaps this is how we begin to reject the zero-sum thinking that says, “If the other side wins on anything, my side loses on everything” — how we begin to turn toward each other, at a time when it’s so easy to turn away or simply turn off.
We also must embrace one another’s shared humanity — across the breach, to heal the breach — which means we must at least tolerate the expression of views with which we disagree.
Among all the Enlightenment Age ideals that informed our founders, tolerance — that stuffy, unsatisfying triumph of classical liberalism — predicated the civil rights and civil liberties we cherish.
Our founders knew from experience: The alternative to tolerance was violence, the religious and ethnic strife that had bloodied centuries of European history. Make no mistake: The future could hold the same in store for us.
How do we forestall this tragedy? By rediscovering and recommitting to our American identity, to these truths we still hold: Out of many, we are one — because we believe in what Frederick Douglass called “absolute equality.” We believe in equal representation, equal rights and equal justice; that happiness is a pursuit, not an achievement, realized through self-determination, but also tolerance, generosity and reason.
To be sure, some dismiss this tradition as fruit from a poisoned tree, and the facts are undeniable. The United States’ history as a functioning democracy only began in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation to guarantee the franchise — and even the Voting Rights Act’s protections are now imperiled in many states, as other fundamental rights are thrown into new jeopardy.
And yet what makes America great is not the fact of our perfection but our act of becoming more perfect. What makes the American people exceptional is that we have the strength to acknowledge our failings — moral, structural, personal — and the courage to make wrong into right.
Anger and grief are not unreasonable. I share the outrage and despair that many appropriately feel about America’s backsliding. But this cannot be a reason to cede our patriotism. Our ancestors and elders, today’s social justice leaders on the front lines, all have sacrificed too much for us to give up on America now.
And patriotism can take as many forms as there are perspectives. Love of country can mean placing your hand on your heart during the national anthem or kneeling on one knee. It can mean serving as a police officer or a first responder to keep our neighborhoods safe, or protesting in those very same streets. The declaration itself was an act of defiant resistance.
However we give voice to our patriotism, let’s step away from the extremes and from the edge, away from the sanctimony and certitude. Let’s build longer bridges, not higher walls. The cost of the alternative is greater than any of us can bear.
Let’s resolve to listen with humility, curiosity and empathy — with open hearts and minds. Let’s resolve to extend the presumption of grace and the benefit of the doubt.
The road to enduring justice runs through reconciliation, and the road to reconciliation runs through truth.
One of our hard truths is that, as the poet says, America has never been America. Another truth is that it can be still, and it must be, and it will be — if we renew our fidelity to the values that bind us, both despite and because of our differences.
Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.
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