Recent public-opinion surveys paint a grim picture of an America that’s losing confidence in the institutions and ideas that undergird the American experiment – that ongoing effort to build a more perfect union of free people.
Just 38% of Americans, for example, say patriotism is “very important” (down from 70% in 1998). American adults born since 1981 (the Millennial generation and Generation Z) are decidedly less proud of America than older generations, less likely to embrace the concept of American exceptionalism than older generations, and more likely than older generations to view the U.S. flag as a symbol of imperialism, greed and intolerance, rather than freedom.
Public confidence in the courts, federal government, state government and the police is falling. Almost a third of Americans believe the country would be better if “non-elected experts” were in charge. Fifty-six percent of Americans say we should “silence” “troublemakers spreading radical ideas.” In a similar vein, Millennials and Gen Z (comprising 37% of voters) are far more likely than older generations to support restrictions on free speech. Almost 50% of Millennials and Gen Z would “prefer living in a socialist country.”
In short, support for many of the pillar institutions of the American experiment – self-government, economic freedom, political freedom, rule of law, patriotism – is eroding.
Self-government and political freedom
In America, “we the people” govern. We do so through elected representatives who work for us – not the other way around. America’s constitutional order begins with Article I’s description of the House of Representatives. The makeup of the House is determined “by the people.” The founders determined that the people’s house – not a general, not a central committee, not a coterie of unelected experts – would take the lead in governing. The founders understood, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America” (perhaps the most insightful assessment of America’s political-cultural institutions ever written), that the intelligence and power of the people “are disseminated through all the parts of this vast country … Instead of radiating from a common point, they cross each other in every direction.”
Too many Americans have forgotten this – or never learned this. “We seem to be in the process of exchanging a republic of self-governing citizens,” former Nebraska senator Ben Sasse observed during his farewell speech, with “administrative centralization, in which experts … try to impose uniform rules on a diverse continental nation.”
Our system of self-government demands our participation and engagement, our time and attention. It doesn’t run on autopilot, and it’s not designed to be run by non-elected experts. It may be frustrating and inefficient, but it’s better than the alternatives. This American experiment remains, as President Abraham Lincoln observed, “the last best hope of earth.” It’s up to each of us whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as he intoned, survives or withers away.
Those of us who believe in the American experiment need to work at persuading our disenchanted, disinterested neighbors that they have a role to play in America’s unfolding story.
Rule of law
The rule of law means just what it says: The law is what rules – not the law of might-makes-right, not the law of one-man rule, not the lawlessness of mobs, not two sets of laws.
The very first sentence of the Constitution makes plain that a central purpose of our union is to “insure domestic tranquility” – law and order – yet America has been repeatedly scarred by mob lawlessness in recent years.
The 14th Amendment guarantees “equal protection” under the law. Yet polling reveals that large segments of both major political parties “endorse the view that it is acceptable to ‘bend the rules’ for people like themselves to achieve political goals.”
Too many Americans forget that freedom depends on a foundation of law and order. Without the law, without respect for the rule of the law, without some infrastructure of order, freedom descends into license and ultimately into anarchy.
Those of us who believe in the American experiment need to defend those who defend the law. Without them, the American experiment will fail.
Not long ago, there was a stigma in America attached to “socialism” and “communism.” They were viewed as alien and hostile to the American way of life. But in 2023, it’s capitalism that has become a four-letter word in many circles. That’s worrisome because capitalism is just another term for free enterprise and “the pursuit of happiness.” Characterized by high levels of individual liberty, private ownership of property and freedom from coercion, this way of organizing an economy and meeting society’s needs is imperfect, but – as with representative democracy – it has proven more effective than any of the alternatives humanity has tried.
Socialism – an economic system characterized by high levels of state control, government intervention, coercion, collective ownership – is one of those alternatives. Indeed, it was the main alternative to free enterprise for much of the 20th century, until its chief proponent – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – failed. For a time, the Soviet system’s collapse served as proof of the futility of socialism and the superiority of capitalism. But with new generations coming of age that a lack firsthand memory of the inherent shortcomings of Marx’s theories, America’s default distaste for socialism is disappearing.
In fact, only 55% of Millennials think “communism was and still is a problem.” They must be unaware of the 100 million murders committed by communist regimes, the gulags and laogai, the manmade famines, the attempted starvation of West Berlin, the bludgeoning of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the killing fields of Cambodia, the unprovoked invasions of South Korea and Afghanistan, the rule by torture and disappearance, or the words of the last leader of the Soviet Union: “I was ashamed for my country,” Mikhail Gorbachev confessed, “perhaps the country with the richest resources on earth, and we couldn't provide toothpaste for our people.”
Those of us who believe in the American experiment need to educate up-and-coming generations about the benefits of economic freedom – and the dangers of the alternative.
During his trek across America in the 1830s, Tocqueville noticed that Americans “are separated from all other nations by a feeling of pride. For the past 50 years no pains have been spared to convince the inhabitants of the United States that they are the only religious, enlightened and free people.”
Just as decades of inculcating a sense of exceptionalism resulted in national pride, decades of teaching American kids that their country is no better than – perhaps worse than – other countries have resulted in an America that is less proud and less cognizant of its exceptionalism.
The way to reverse this is through better civic education – an education effort that transcends the classroom. This is not to suggest that we should be uncritical of America’s history. In fact, one of the characteristics that makes America exceptional – and indeed strengthens America – is our capacity for self-criticism, which leads to self-correction. However, many Americans are engaging today not in healthy self-criticism that leads to necessary course corrections, but rather in moral relativism that’s undermining the American experiment.
President Ronald Reagan noticed this tilt away from American exceptionalism. “Younger parents aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children,” he observed. “As for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style.” Gazing at that shifting cultural landscape, he warned of “an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” And here we are.
The challenge is daunting. But America found itself in a similar place a century ago – and found its way out.
The American Legion helped reverse that earlier period of erosion. As American Legion Magazine editor Jeff Stoffer details, there were concerns after World War I about a lack of commitment to the American experiment – what the Legion’s founders saw as a dearth of “public understanding and appreciation of the American identity.”
There were concerns about waning support for free enterprise – namely that the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia “might spill over into the United States. Communist recruiters were already pitching their thinking to young Americans, including troops still stationed in Europe.”
There were concerns about a weakening or distortion of America’s political system – a system founded on representative government, rule of law and justice for all. Stoffer notes that the Legion condemned “any individual, group or organization that ‘creates or fosters racial, religious or class strife among our people, or which takes into their own hands the enforcement of law’” – calling such stances “un-American” and “a menace to our liberties and destructive to our fundamental law.’”
And so the Legion launched civic-education programs, “citizenship training” programs, youth sports leagues and Boys State; forged strategic partnerships with other groups of influence; and called on veterans “to serve the country in the same spirit we had in war.”
The overarching goal of the Americanism campaign was “to transmit American principles” from generation to generation, American to American.
What’s all this have to do with defending our nation and deterring our enemies? If up-and-coming generations of Americans don’t participate in the American experiment – and don’t believe in American exceptionalism – they won’t be willing to sacrifice for America or defend America.
Up-and-coming generations need reminders about what makes America a great and good nation. Up-and-coming generations need to learn that the measure of a nation, like that of an individual, is direction, not perfection. Up-and-coming generations need to know that America was born headed in the right direction.
One of America’s great leaders called the Declaration of Independence “a great dream.” He boasted about how America’s founding document “distinguishes our nation and our form of government from any totalitarian system.” He described how “each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred by the state … They are God-given, gifts from His hands.” He noted, “Never before … has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.” And he believed that “God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind.” In these words, Martin Luther King was describing American exceptionalism and cheering the American experiment.
Taken together, Lincoln, the Legion, King and Reagan offer something of a playbook for dealing with today’s challenges.
“Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual,” Reagan counseled. “We've got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important – why the Pilgrims came here … who Jimmy Doolittle was … Omaha Beach … what it means to be an American.”
To that list, we might add King’s eloquent words about America; how Americans rescued West Berliners and South Koreans from the prisonyard of communism, Indonesians and Japanese from tsunamis, Yazidis from ISIS, Somalis from famine, millions of Africans from AIDS, Ebola and malaria, and all mankind from smallpox and polio; how America has delivered 685 million COVID-19 vaccines overseas; and how America serves as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense.
Up-and-coming generations of Americans won’t know these things if they aren’t taught these things. This civic-education effort should begin at home – as Reagan observed, “All great change in America begins at the dinner table” – but it must extend into the broader culture. The effort needs to enfold K-12 schools, schools of education within universities and university-wide programs. Parents and schools need help in this effort. That’s where The American Legion, other veterans groups, chambers of commerce, labor-union locals, youth sports leagues, and civic-minded small businesses and nonprofits come into play.
In fact, it’s time for every organization – and every person – that benefits from the American experiment to become civic-minded.