The United States of America reaches its 234th birthday this weekend with a people divided, an economy in shambles, one of its largest environmental messes growing roughly as rapidly as the national debt, two hot wars simmering and one cold one showing signs of warming.
Hot dog, anyone?
The United States has faced far greater challenges than this. The president might be rhetorically at war with the people, not to mention the Constitution, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry's bluster notwithstanding, no state has taken up arms against the federal government. Nor are racist Eurogoons mustering at the Rhine with hopes to goose-step their way across the Atlantic while racist Asian imperialists forge new navies. (We have a different kind of fanatic imperialist to worry about, but apparently they've found even our lax and inept border enforcement too challenging to handle lately.)
And yet the challenges we confront today, as World War II veterans fade into history all around us, seem monumentally complex and difficult. Only 65 years ago the United States could find the resources and resolve to defeat Hitler and Hirohito simultaneously, and do it in only four years, but now we can't find the courage to trim even a few percentage points from the growth rates of our entitlement programs. Our grandparents gave their lives to liberate Europe and crush Imperial Japan, and we can't sacrifice the National Endowment for the Arts to save our own country from financial collapse.
This is a great and complex nation. This weekend our first black president attends the funeral of our longest-serving senator, who as a young man was a leader of his local Ku Klux Klan chapter, and who as a middle-aged man filibustered the Civil Rights Act. We make progress quickly here. When Robert Byrd was elected to Congress, the South was segregated and lynchings still happened. When he died, our president, our most trusted celebrity (James Earl Jones) and our richest and most powerful celebrity (Oprah) were all black. Byrd was first elected to Congress just four years after Jackie Robinson became a Dodger. This year, 38 percent of Major League Baseball players are Hispanic, black or Asian.
But as we sit together in sports stadiums and movie theaters, crowds as multi-colored, if not more so, than the teams or casts we watch (or the politicians we vote for), we are fragmenting along political lines as our government pits groups of us against one another.
In some ways America is more united than it ever has been. By and large, we no longer tolerate racism, and we do tolerate more differences in our friends, neighbors and co-workers than ever before -- except when it comes to politics. There, it's a nasty, bitter, divided world. Democrats demonize Republicans, and vice versa. No one on the other side is allowed to have good motives. Battles are winner-take-all and take-no-prisoners affairs. Obtaining and keeping power is the goal, all else -- including national unity and future prosperity -- be damned.
The United States is a self-correcting country. An enterprising people, we fix our own problems. We don't gaze across the Atlantic or Pacific and hope to be helped up. At least, with the exception of Yorktown, we never have. One wonders, though, whether we have exhausted ourselves trying to fix the rest of the world's problems. Is there any energy, any will, to do the hard work necessary to fix our own this time?
I think the answer is "yes." I see the spirited defense of American liberty that arose spontaneously to confront the current administration's systematic effort to seize control of the economy, and I see hope for this country. The Tea Party movement made it OK to oppose this president, this Congress, and their agenda to reshape the United States in Europe's mold. The left dismissed it as anti-tax, but like its namesake it was organized to oppose rapidly encroaching government power, not taxes. And it has had a profound effect.
A year ago, Obama was popular and the left was on the ascent. Today, nearly half of independents (45 percent) prefer Republicans to Democrats heading into this fall's mid-term elections, according to Gallup. Only 35 percent prefer Democrats. The Tea Party movement does not account for all of the country's shift away from Obama and his policies -- Obama himself accounts for most of it -- but it had a profound effect.
The 20th century saw a big shift toward European-style statism in the United States. Obama hoped to complete what FDR and LBJ could not. He might yet. But I see reasons to expect he will fail. The American people understand that the Greeks turned what was once the greatest nation in the world into a failed welfare state, and they don't want to suffer the same fate. They get that we are headed in that direction if we don't change course. So they are preparing to change course.
In doing so, they begin the correction that will, if divine providence allows, enable this great nation to see another 234 birthdays. Doubtful? Maybe. But a few birthdays ago, so was the idea that a ragtag group of militiamen could defeat the world's greatest military power.