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Americans Seem to Be Tiring of Their Historic Great Experiment

01/18/2013 09:15 pm ET | Updated Mar 20, 2013
  • Glen Browder Former Congressman, Alabama; Professor Emeritus, Jacksonville State University

As previous discussions about potentially Dying America have demonstrated, the elements of American democracy are still functioning during these transformational times -- but unacceptably so; and, as I will suggest in this post, the American people -- although generally patriotic and supportive in many ways -- may be tiring of the Great Experiment.

President Barack Obama was elected and re-elected with the stated mission to transform America; perhaps he will have that opportunity as our country endures fundamental philosophical debate and change of a nature unprecedented except by the Civil War.

My final proposition incorporates the cumulative impact of multitudinous democratic ills. America's favorable systemic environment has disappeared, we have entrapped our national democratic experiment in a philosophical civil war, American democracy no longer works the way it used to work, and it is time to worry about the Great Experiment:

Proposition #4: Americans Seem to Be Tiring of Their Historic Great Experiment

In this discussion, I will explore contemporary society's mixed commitment to our national experiment in democratic ideals and our ambivalent attitudes toward American government.

America's Democratic Dissensus

It is easy to document troubling patterns of disarray in America's democratic ethos. Although there's no reason to question the generally positive sentiments of America's citizenry, a growing body of public opinion data clearly reveals, alongside our patriotic and supportive orientations, surprisingly mixed sentiments -- or democratic "dissensus" -- regarding the national democratic experiment.

National Identity. In the first place, we fall short of consensus on a central normative concept -- sense of national identity -- of our historic democratic experiment. In actuality, we have never been a consensual society of universally like-minded Americans. But broad, popular subscription to notions of inspired nationhood -- as divined by our Founders and nurtured for generations -- certainly has played a prominent role in the successful furtherance of our Great Experiment over the past two centuries.

Current uncertainty and dissensus regarding our national identity are obvious and noteworthy. Available evidence suggests, for example, only mixed agreement on the fundamental idea that "we're all in this together" as expressed in our original motto, "E Pluribus Unum." We are even more tentative in embracing traditional symbols and notions such as the American flag, the pledge of allegiance, and "In God We Trust."

Civic Ideals. More substantively, while most Americans today say that they value historic civic ideals such as freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly, they often disagree with the actual implementation of those important principles. National polls reveal, for example, that, while most respondents assert that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, a majority thinks the press has too much freedom; and about half of us would ban art and public remarks, that some find offensive. Most strikingly, more than four in ten think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights granted to American citizens.

This gap between enlightened theoretical principles and popular attitudes is not new, but it is strikingly wide and obvious.

Attitudes Toward Governance. While the American public expresses mixed opinions on national identity and democratic ideals, striking evidence of "tired" America emerges when we focus on the governance element of our Great Experiment.

Polling shows that a majority of Americans think they do not have a government "of, by, and for the people." Almost as many feel that the government has a negative effect as feel it has a positive impact on their lives. The picture turns from ambivalence to outright antagonism as pollsters probe our attitudes toward American national government. As our re-elected president and Congress prepare to renew wrangling in our national capital, three-fourths of Americans (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents) tell the Gallup Poll that "the way politics works in Washington causes serious harm to the United States."

Direction of the Country. Many Americans are skeptical about whether our national experiment is heading in the "right direction" or "wrong direction" in the twenty-first century. In fact, combining all national polls shows that dissatisfaction with the country's overall course has topped satisfaction, by strong margins, throughout the past eight years under both Bush and Obama.

Apparently, after two centuries of evolutionary democratic nationalization, various constituent elements of the American polity have become dissatisfied with the tone and direction of public life.

Tiring of the Great Experiment?

We can quibble over traditional ideas and practices; and we can argue about the precise nature and causes of our democratic dissensus. However, America is an increasingly diverse, dissensient, and divergent society; and our political culture appears to be decidedly different from what was presumed and observed in the past. The American people now evidence only mixed commitment to traditional elements of the nation's historic democratic endeavor.

You don't have to subscribe to the rants of ideologues on the left and right to see that something has gone seriously awry in America. Visionary scholar Lawrence Lessig, whose background includes distinguished service at Harvard, Stanford, and Chicago, wrote recently in Republic, Lost (2012):

There is a feeling today among too many Americans that we might not make it. Not that the end is near, or that doom is around the corner, but that a distinctly American feeling of inevitability, or greatness -- culturally, economically, politically -- is gone ... That our capacity for governing -- the product, in part, of a Constitution we have revered for more than two centuries -- has come to an end (p. 1).

Louis Michael Seidman, respected constitutional law professor at Georgetown University, has even proposed that we extricate ourselves from "constitutional bondage." He argues, in a recent piece for the New York TImes ("Let's Give Up on the Constitution"):

As the nation teeters at the edge of fiscal chaos, observers are reaching the conclusion that the American system of government is broken. But almost no one blames the culprit: our insistence on obedience to the Constitution, with all its archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil provisions.

There's no logical reason, Seidman claims, to justify allegiance to a dysfunctional document originally crafted by "a group of white propertied men who have been dead for two centuries, knew nothing of our present situation, acted illegally under existing law and thought it was fine to own slaves."

Therefore, if we view historic America as an acceptable model of democratic life (that is, as a public process incorporating the practical capacity for continuous, progressive march toward democratic ideals), and if we acknowledge the distempered condition of contemporary America at this critical juncture in American history, then we have to be concerned about the disconnect between our historic past and the future of our Great Experiment.

In my next post, I will explore some of the possible outcomes of our national democratic distemper.

Author's Note: This is the tenth in a 16-part series of discussions about Election 2012, Barack Obama, and the future of American democracy. This series includes edited, updated material from my book, The Future of American Democracy: A Former Congressman's Unconventional Analysis (2002). I'm grateful to University Press of America for allowing me to borrow from that publication for my discussions on Huffington Post.