When the Founding Fathers drafted our government, they created a political system around a set of values. The most central of these values were liberty, freedom, and justice. The inspiration for this was the philosophical writings of John Locke, whose ideas, which became the basis for liberalism, were radical for the time.
The government designed by the Founding Fathers was, in many ways, an experiment in governance. Although revolutionary and commendable for its time, the system has aged and become ineffective, and the U.S. is currently trapped in its legacy. Unless we reconsider our identity as a nation, the U.S. will slide into an abject state.
Disunity and Identity
Countries are usually held together by a common ethnicity, culture, language, and history. Individual members of a country can relate to each other through these common strands without having to know each other personally. When a nation is disunified, it usually means one or more of these strands are missing and smaller groups within the nation may want more autonomy or independence.
The U.S. is a multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual nation, which means the traditional things that keep a nation together are either not present or not as strong in the U.S. There are a large number of ethnic minorities — many of them historical or present victims of federal abuse.
A common language is probably the strongest of the traditional unifying strands, with a vast majority having proficiency in English, but there are many distinct regional and cultural dialects like AAVE in addition to a large number of people primarily speaking Spanish. Culturally, there is a lot of variation between Americans with different local cultures informed by ethnicity, history, and geography. Although there are common cultural values held by most, regional cultures and practices vary widely among different groups of people.
Finally, the history of the U.S. is often at odds with the populace due to the different ethnic and cultural groups. Recent groups of Latinx and Asian immigrants don’t have many historical figures that share their heritage. Native Americans and Black Americans have long suffered at the hands of the white Americans. With all these cleavage points, what has kept the U.S. together?
From elementary school, students in the U.S. are taught about how great the Constitution and the Founding Fathers are in their social studies classes. They are taught that the things that have defined America from the beginning are our freedom and our liberty that were enshrined in documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. What happens is, for many school children, their national identity is built around these values, and, as a result, the documents associated with them become part of the national mythos. America is America because it is the “land of the free.” While other nations are united by ethnic or cultural ties, the U.S. is bound together by a political ideology. This is unsustainable.
The role of government is, usually, to best provide for its citizens. As society, populations, and technology change, the government should adjust to best accommodate these changes to provide for the people. If a government fails to change it will become ineffective and outdated.
This is where the problems start. For most countries, governance seeks to best provide for the people, but in the U.S., governance seeks to uphold the constitution and its values. This causes a political lethargy. Our political system is in many ways our identity, so questioning certain aspects of our political system can be seen as questioning the American identity. Reforms are not only scrutinized for their effectiveness, but also their “Americanness.”
This means policies that have been shown to work better in other countries, such as universal healthcare, gun control, and even wearing face masks during a pandemic, face heightened domestic adversity. If a policy is seen as anti freedom or liberty, large swaths of the public respond emotionally with a patriotic fervor denouncing the policy. It isn’t seen as a proposal for governing differently, it is seen as an attack against the core of America. In essence, because the ideals of classical liberalism embedded in the Constitution became part of our national identity, political ideas counter to liberalism often faced extensive backlash.
The political system envisioned in the 19th century by our founders was one designed for the 19th century. Advances in technology, society, and population have made many of the components of the constitution outdated. While it did leave space for amendments and open interpretations, it still lags behind in many ways. Some examples include the electoral college and the second amendment — both relevant for much of U.S. history, yet rapidly becoming more outdated. (Some argue that the electoral college stabilizes electoral politics by making sure power is evenly distributed between rural and urban populations, but most other democracies elect their leaders directly without issue.)
Due to all this, the current American government is less efficient, and generally worse than many of our similarly economically developed allies. We lag behind in rule of law, infrastructure development, press freedom, and even democracy. The lethargy is so flagrant, that certain reforms that might increase our freedom and catch us up with the rest of the world have been restricted.
This means that as society progresses, the U.S. government, if nothing changes, will become more and more ineffective. Proponents of reform will continue to face unnecessary scrutiny and questioning of their “Americanness.” More and more people will realize that the antiquated constitution is keeping the U.S. political system trapped, delegitimizing the document and its liberal philosophy. This rejection will also mean rejecting the binding that keeps the U.S. together, which may lead to catastrophic outcomes.
Major reform to keep the U.S. afloat can come, but, historically, it has only come in times of great turmoil, such as the political reforms after the Civil War or the economic and political reforms during the Great Depression. There is a possibility that reform does not come, the disparate ethnic and cultural groups eventually become fed up with the inefficient government, and the union breaks down, however unlikely it seems at the moment.
A New Model of America
The problem with American politics is our incessant fixation on the constitution and its values. Many people regard them as infallible, and, although it is hard to disagree with freedom and liberty, the deification of the ideals is harmful to good governance. Instead of idealizing the political system that was created in 1787, we should shape our national identity around the idea of the “great experiment.”
Our founding fathers established a government that had not been created before, one based on a political theory that was then unproven. They took a giant risk, and it paid off, but it doesn’t mean we should stop taking risks. Instead of being grounded in the ideas of men hundreds of years ago, America should be defined by the spirit of our Founding Fathers: the venture into the unknown.
If, instead of insisting that the constitution is infallible to our children, we celebrate the risks that our Founding Fathers make, then we can cultivate future generations of Americans open to change and new ideas. This new America can be flexible and able to keep up with society and technology, and the lethargy that grips our country’s governance will fade. The mythos of a daring national identity is present in our scientific feats and technological innovations. Why not include our politics?