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Because you’re online so much you probably saw the Wall Street Journal/NORC poll that came out this week. It found that the share of Americans who say patriotism is very important to them has dropped to 38 percent from 70 percent since 1998. The share who say religion is very important has dropped to 39 percent from 62 percent. The share who say community involvement is very important has dropped to 27 percent from 47 percent. The share who say having children is very important has dropped to 30 percent from 59 percent.
These trends are partly driven by you, young adults under 30. Only 23 percent of you said that patriotism is very important or that having children is very important.
You’re disillusioned and I get it. You’ve grown up in a crappy time — Iraq, the financial crisis, Trump, George Floyd, the pandemic, a widespread sense that you won’t be as well off as your parents.
But I grew up in a crappy time, too. I’m old enough to remember the assassinations of 1968. Over the next few years, Americans experienced defeat in Vietnam, crime rates beginning to surge and the hollowing out of cities, the energy crisis, wages beginning to decline, stagflation and Watergate.
But look at what happened next. Five years after the fall of Saigon, and the supposed death blow to American self-confidence that would cripple American power, the nation elected Ronald Reagan and felt a surge of optimism. Nine years after that, the Berlin Wall fell and the United States emerged as the world’s dominant superpower. Three years after that the nation elected Bill Clinton and entered the 1990s era of relative peace, prosperity and calm. Crime rates began to plummet.
The political scientist Samuel Huntington was right: The story of American history is the story of periodic convulsions of failure and breakdown followed by long periods of readjustment and renewal.
As I witnessed America’s recovery in the 1980s and 1990s I felt and saw around me a growing patriotism and faith in America. Sure, there was some of the resentful, rotten patriotism you now see at MAGA rallies, but there was also a more mature kind of patriotism, the love you have for your country when you know its flaws. It was a curious kind of patriotism, one that wanted to understand the full complexities of America, that wanted to read David McCullough, John Hope Franklin and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and watch those Ken Burns documentaries.
Personally, that kind of patriotism gave me a sense of identity and belonging. It ripped me from the prison of the present and placed me in a long procession of Americans — the dead, the living and the unborn. It broke through the walls that separate one person from another and gave me a sense of membership in a community so varied and so much to be treasured that I have never been able to hate Americans who differ from me politically.
That kind of love is a propelling force for people who served the nation in all the different ways — in government, the military and beyond. This love manifests as a wild and generous energy. “Giving is the highest expression of potency,” Erich Fromm wrote in “The Art of Loving.” “In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy.”
The recovery of the ’80s and ’90s ended early this century, and as leaders failed one after the other, I’ve swung wildly between optimism and pessimism, sometimes by the hour.
But over the past two years, I’ve become convinced that the latest of America’s renewal periods has already begun. Working-class wages are rising, income inequality is declining and manufacturing jobs are more plentiful. America remains a vigorously innovative country on the planet. We lead the world in attracting the most foreign direct investment. America has a more diverse array of talented people than ever before. The Republican Party hasn’t, but voters overall rejected Trumpism in 2022. Joe Biden may not be your cup of tea, but he’s restored sanity, effectiveness and decency to the White House.
My greatest fear is that the latest renewal will be killed in its crib by the intractable forces of cynicism and withdrawal. My fear is that we’ve entered a distrust doom loop: People are so untrusting of their institutions and their neighbors that they are unwilling to reach out, to actively renew their communities and their country, and so the dysfunction will continue, and the distrust will increase, and so on and so on.
What really worried me about the Wall Street Journal poll is that people are still pulling inward on a variety of fronts; they are telling pollsters that patriotism, parenthood and community are not very important to them.
Only love and a leap of faith can break through distrust. That is why a credible form of patriotism is so important right now. We’ve hit that spot in the cycle of crisis and renewal at which people have to take the kind of common actions that send the vital message: we can trust each other.