Editorial: Happy birthday to a fragile, divided America

A student holding a U.S. flag upside down stands atop the steps at the Idaho Capitol Building.
A student holds a U.S. flag upside down at the Idaho Capitol Building in Boise. The Idaho Senate has approved legislation aimed at preventing schools and universities from “indoctrinating” students through teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law.
(Darin Oswald / Idaho Statesman )

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass asked in an 1852 oration in Rochester, N.Y. The holiday “is yours, not mine,” he said, denouncing the “gross injustice and cruelty” that was American slavery.

Not a decade later, our nation had fallen apart.

Today, the United States is more divided than at any point since the 1960s — if not the 1850s. Americans disagree even on how to define liberty, equality and justice for all, much less what actions to take to advance these noble ideals. The year 1968 was marked by assassinations and a deepening quagmire in Vietnam. The year 2021 has been marked by a violent insurrection at the Capitol and withdrawal from a “forever war” in Afghanistan.

Surely one cause of our present disunity is the fracturing of the information ecosystem. Networks such as Fox News Channel and MSNBC offer diametrically opposing world views. Only 29% of Americans say they trust the news media. Mainstream publications like the one you are reading have struggled to remain relevant. A tsunami of misinformation and falsehoods, whether peddled by elected officials and their partisans here or malefactors overseas, has sowed doubt and confusion over the simplest of behaviors — wearing a mask, staying six feet from others, getting vaccinated — that are necessary to get the pandemic under control. Without agreement on a common set of facts, it is impossible to understand, much less debate, differences of opinion.


One result of this fracturing is that two Americas — one tending to be rural, white, old, working-class, male, less educated, inland and religious; the other tending to be urban, multiracial, young, upwardly mobile, female, better educated, coastal and secular — have emerged, and they don’t talk to each other.

For example, corporations, universities, nonprofit groups, news organizations and other institutions are grappling with the consequences of systemic racism and trying to advance diversity, equity and inclusion. But in the right-wing echo chamber, critical race theory — an academic movement originating in the 1970s — has become the latest obsession, with commentators in that milieu claiming falsely that thinking critically about race and power is akin to stoking hatred.

Divisions over race and racism are the obvious fault line in today’s America, but there are many others, above all the widening inequality of income and wealth that has eroded the middle class and left many Americans worried that their children will not enjoy the same access to education and standard of living that they had.

For many Americans, today is not the day to ponder these problems, but rather to throw hot dogs and burgers on the grill, watch their cities’ fireworks displays and spend time with their families. It is indeed heartening that families can celebrate together, after more than a year of stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions and other health mandates that physically separated them.

But today is also a day to reflect. This is the first Independence Day after the newest federal holiday, Juneteenth, which marks the “new birth of freedom” to which the Civil War gave rise. It is the first Independence Day since President Biden took office, vowing to repair a nation shattered by his predecessor’s outrageous lies, threats and abuses.

Five years from today, the United States will mark the 250th anniversary of the signing of its Declaration of Independence, the start of a revolution that inspired similar movements for freedom worldwide, from Haiti to Latin America to Europe. Will we make it that far? The unity of these States of America is not guaranteed; our nation fell apart once, and it could do so again. Above all, this Fourth of July should remind us of the fragility of our democracy and the urgency of improving it.

“This Fourth July is yours, not mine,” Douglass said in his 1852 oration, arguably the finest ever written about Independence Day. “You may rejoice, I must mourn.”


An America of robust health and shared prosperity, an America open to immigration and innovation, an America with social mobility and a strong middle class, an America that is confident enough to acknowledge and reckon with the tragedies of its past, an America with a shared civic vocabulary and an openness to good-faith debate, an America that leads the global battle against the climate crisis, an America that shows that democracy works — that America will be the one in which all of us can rejoice.