Think back to July 4, 1968 and celebration of Independence Day in a nation severely divided by the Vietnam War and disrupted by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Glee and pride were in short supply.
By the end of summer 1968, according to Smithsonian.com, 53 percent of Americans opposed the Vietnam War, while 35 percent supported it. Times were tense in America.
Now, nearly 51 years later, as we approach our 243rd birthday, our country is polarized and paralyzed by partisan politics. Civility has suffered. Friendships have ruptured. Compromise has become a mostly unattainable ideal in our U.S. Congress. Our president does little, if anything, to heal and unite.
In a Pew Research Center poll released more than three months ago, 60 percent of respondents believe that the United States will be less important in the world over the next 30 years, while 31 percent opine that the U.S. will be more important. Sixty-five percent believe that the country will be more politically divided; 26 percent think it will be less politically divided.
As was the case in 1968, our national fabric is badly frayed. Pessimism is on the rise, as illustrated in the just-cited figures.
According to the Pew research, “the majority of Americans have little confidence that the federal government and their elected officials are up to meeting the major challenges that lie ahead…when asked what impact the federal government will have on finding solutions to the country’s future problems, more say that Washington will have a negative impact than a positive one (55% vs. 44%).”
Optimism must experience a resurgence and overcome our current malaise.
Income equality must be addressed to reduce, if possible, the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Capitalism, coupled with a buoyant though fractious democracy, must remain strong and thriving.
Police brutality, tainted by racism, must be minimized. Public trust in our law enforcement agencies needs an urgent boost.
Immigrants must feel welcomed and treated humanely. Lawful entry into our country is critical, but so is flexibility and compassion.
Climate change cannot be disregarded or derided. Scientific evidence is abundant as violent changes in climate, such as increased heat, deadly fires and more frequent storm surges, roil our nation and world. Human behavior must change in reducing the production of carbon dioxide and consequent global warming.
Our young nation is strong and resilient. It has withstood a Civil War in the mid-1800s, a Depression in the 1930s, racial riots in the 1960s, political turbulence at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and a recession in 2007-2009.
Without an upsurge in hope and comity, we will face continued degradation of our national soul and ability to forge solutions to complex, gnawing problems, The partisan pendulum must right itself.
Like others who view our country’s future with alarm, I believe that leadership is an inextricable part of the answer to bridging the socioeconomic gap so prevalent in American society. In small and large ways during my life on our sometimes unsettled earth, I’ve seen the impact of a determined, visionary, compassionate and effective leader. I’ve seen where dissonant factions can be encouraged and prodded into committing to a common good.
It’s never easy. Formerly rigid ways of behaving undergo change, albeit painfully.
Independence Day fireworks illuminate the excitement and value of living in a country known for its moral authority. They bring wonder to the young and old. They fill our communities with joy and togetherness. Barriers diminish briefly.
We recovered from the tumult and social upheaval in the 1960s. We overcame social and political divisions, though remnants remain. We can do the same now. We need leaders on the local, state and federal levels to call for the best of us and display open-mindedness and tolerance.
Is it possible? I hope so.
Is it just a dream that dissipates in the light of day? I hope not.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.