It’s a funny thing about fireworks: As they fleetingly light up the skies, they temporarily can blind us to the dreary reality that lies below. As we mark the 240th year since our Declaration of Independence, we need to take stock about how far we’ve fallen from the fervent highs of the revolutionaries back in 1776. In too many ways, their idealism has become a dud.
Look no further than our alternatives for the next chief executive. Let’s be blunt: If the polls are to be believed, we will be forced to choose between “bad” and “disaster,” between someone who is untrustworthy and calculating, and a liar who is a shameless demagogue. How inspiring is that? It’s as if those fireworks to celebrate the spirit of ‘76 have started to fizzle.
The Declaration’s premise is for a democracy that would evolve after the separation from England to ensure “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” as we all remember from middle school. Sad to say, our government has far too often become the catalyst for money and power for the few, with little regard for the people. What, back then, was a violent split from the “absolute tyranny” of the British king has turned into a fiefdom for the privileged who manipulate their puppets in government in a slightly more subtle way, the legalized bribery known as campaign contributions.
The political system maintains its corrupt stability by organizing into two parties. As we’ve seen with the turmoil wrenching the old British country, there is something to be said for that. By comparison to the United States’ governing balance of power, with its built-in predictability, the United Kingdom has shown that even its parliamentary system can run off the rails. It remains susceptible to the same prejudices and ignorance that the Brits like to deride in the U.S.
The problem here is that stability can lead to calcification and a “rigged system” that is fertile ground for a Donald Trump. He’s right, and so are the others who complain that the so-called democracy has turned into an oligarchy that serves the few, not the many.
Unfortunately, the answer is not hatred, nor bigotry, but as those who are left behind — meaning, most of us — flail around angrily, we look for scapegoats, or at least millions of us do. History has shown so tragically that that’s what people do when they feel stuck on an economic treadmill that is taking them backward. So, along comes Trump, who manufactures scapegoats: Mexicans, Muslims, people of color, the disabled. He insults womanhood, and anyone who would dare oppose him. His supporters get more excited with his every outrage. It’s easy to understand when we look at what polite discourse has gotten them. Crude is more fun than civilized to those who believe they suffer from some of the excesses of political correctness.
Back in 1776, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were united in only one way: their resolve to terminate their status as English colonies. They gave little thought to a United States. That would come later. Just to take that first step, as we know, they had to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” That first one was the biggie. If they didn’t succeed with their revolution, they’d be executed for treason. So the groundwork for our great experiment in freedom came at great risk.
That’s what’s so sad about turning our backs on the highs that accompanied what they started. One could argue that the Roman candles we “ooh” and “ahhh” over every July Fourth are sadly appropriate for a nation that is going the way of the Roman Empire. We have time to turn things around, but first we must regain the spirit and override the growing feeling of disgust.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.