Project Fortress: A Failing Experiment?
Recent public-opinion surveys paint a grim picture of an America that’s losing confidence in the very institutions and ideas that undergird the American Experiment—that enduring effort to build a more perfect union of free people.
The Wall Street Journal reports that just 38 percent of Americans say patriotism is very important (down from 70 percent in 1998). Gallup polling reveals that 31 percent of Americans have “very little/no” confidence in religious institutions (up from 16 percent in 2000); 31 percent have “very little/no” confidence in the Supreme Court (up from 15 percent in 2000); 57 percent have “very little/no” confidence in Congress (up from 27 percent in 2000); 49 percent have “very little/no” confidence in the presidency (up from 20 percent in 2000); 54 percent have “very little/no” confidence in the police (up from 12 percent in 2000).
Other nationwide polling reveals that 29 percent of Americans believe the country would be better if “non-elected experts” handled political decisions. Polling conducted by Hill Research shows that 53 percent of Americans believe we should just “do what the authorities tell us to do”; 56 percent want to “silence the troublemakers spreading radical ideas.”
Related, Millennials and Generation Z are far more likely than older generations to support restrictions on freedom of speech. Nearly 50 percent of Millennials and Gen Z would “prefer living in a socialist country.” And Millennials and Generation Z are decidedly less proud of America than older generational cohorts, less likely to embrace the concept of American exceptionalism than older generations, and more likely than older generations to view the American flag as a symbol of “imperialism,” “greed” and/or “intolerance,” rather than a symbol of “freedom.”
In short, support for many of the pillar institutions of the American Experiment—self-governance, economic and political freedom, rule of law, American exceptionalism, respect for the role of faith—is eroding.
Self-Governance and Political Freedom
In America, “we the people” govern. We do so through our elected representatives, who work for us—not the other way around. Indeed, it’s telling that America’s constitutional order begins with Article I’s description of the House of Representatives. The makeup of the House is determined “by the people.” The Founders wanted the people’s house—not a king or general, not a central committee, not a coterie of unelected experts—to take the lead in governing. The Founders understood, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, that “The intelligence and power of the people are disseminated through all the parts of this vast country…Instead of radiating from a common point, they cross each other in every direction.”
Too many Americans have forgotten this, or perhaps never learned this. “We seem to be in the process of exchanging a republic of self-governing citizens,” Ben Sasse, the former senator from Nebraska, observed during his farewell speech earlier this year, “with the vices instead of administrative centralization, in which experts from Washington, D.C., who don’t have to stand for reelection would try to impose uniform rules on a diverse continental nation of 330 million people.”
Our system of self-government may be frustrating and imperfect and difficult at times, but it’s superior to all the alternatives. It demands our participation and engagement, our time and attention. It doesn’t run on autopilot, and it’s not designed to be run by non-elected experts. This American Experiment remains, as Lincoln observed in 1862 “the last best hope of earth.” It’s up to each of us and all of us whether “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Lincoln explained, shall survive or perish.
Those of us who believe in the American Experiment need to work at persuading our neighbors that they have a stake in the American Experiment and a role to play in America’s unfolding story.
Rule of Law
The rule of law means just what it says: The law is what rules—not the law of might-makes-right, not the law of one-man rule, not the lawlessness of mobs, not two sets of laws.
The very first sentence of the Constitution makes plain that a central purpose of our union is to “insure domestic tranquility”—law and order—yet America has been repeatedly scarred by mob lawlessness in recent years.
The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees “equal protection” under the law. Yet polling reveals that large segments of both major political parties “endorse the view that it is acceptable to ‘bend the rules’ for people like themselves to achieve political goals.”
Too many Americans forget that freedom depends on a foundation of law and order. Without the law, without respect for the rule of the law, without some infrastructure of order, freedom descends into license and ultimately into anarchy.
Those of us who believe in the American Experiment need to defend those who defend the law—judges, prosecutors, law-enforcement officers. Without them, the American Experiment will fail.
Not long ago, there was a stigma in America attached to “socialism” and “communism.” They were viewed as alien and hostile to the American way of life. But in 2023, it’s capitalism that has become a four-letter word in many circles. That’s worrisome because capitalism is just another term for free enterprise and “the pursuit of happiness.” Characterized by high levels of individual liberty, private ownership of property and freedom from coercion, this way of organizing an economy and meeting society’s needs is imperfect, but—as with representative democracy—it has proven more effective than any of the alternatives humanity has tried.
Socialism—an economic system characterized by high levels of state control, government intervention, coercion, collective ownership—is one of those alternatives. Indeed, it was the main alternative to free enterprise for much of the 20th century, until its chief proponent—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—failed. For a time, the Soviet system’s collapse served as proof of the futility of socialism and the superiority of capitalism. But with new generations coming of age that lack firsthand memory of the inherent shortcomings of Marx’s theories, America’s default distaste for socialism is disappearing. In fact, only 55 percent of Millennials think “communism was and still is a problem.” They must be unaware that Lenin murdered some six million people to build his workers’ paradise; that Stalin’s collectivization programs erased three times as many; that communist regimes have perpetrated 100 million murders (and counting). Apparently, they’ve never heard about the USSR’s gulags or the PRC’s laogai, the manmade famines, the attempted starvation of West Berlin, the bludgeoning of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the killing fields of Cambodia and Vietnam, the unprovoked invasions of South Korea and Afghanistan, the rule by torture and disappearance, or the words of the USSR’s last leader: “I was ashamed for my country,” Mikhail Gorbachev confessed, “perhaps the country with the richest resources on earth, and we couldn’t provide toothpaste for our people.”
Those of us who believe in the American Experiment need to educate up-and-coming generations about the benefits of economic freedom—and the dangers of the alternative.
Respect for Faith
“I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in religion,” Tocqueville observed, “but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”
The Founders would have agreed. Historian Isaac Kramnick notes that most of the Founders believed “religion was a crucial support of government.” In his first inaugural address, Washington concluded, “The propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained.” Adams explained, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” Jefferson called on the Almighty to “lead our councils to what is best.”
In short, the Founding Fathers—even the Deists among them—recognized that religion supported personal virtue, and personal virtue supported civic virtue, and together these supported institutions that promoted a healthy society of free people.
It is not a single faith that unites America, but rather respect for faith. This respect for faith—a humbling reminder that there’s something more powerful than the individual, the public or the government—helps support our political system. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the same ways—or at all—to recognize this. What we need to do is revive a respect for faith, a respect for what faith institutions contribute to our society.
During his trek across America in the 1830s, Tocqueville noticed that Americans “are separated from all other nations by a feeling of pride. For the last fifty years no pains have been spared to convince the inhabitants of the United States that they are the only religious, enlightened and free people.”
Just as decades of inculcating a sense of exceptionalism resulted in national pride, decades of teaching American kids that their country is no better than—perhaps worse than—other countries have resulted in an America that is less proud and less cognizant of its exceptionalism.
The way to reverse this is through better civic education—an education effort that transcends the classroom. This is not to suggest that we should be uncritical of America’s history. In fact, one of the characteristics that makes America exceptional—and indeed strengthens America—is our capacity for self-criticism, which leads to self-correction. However, many Americans are engaging today not in healthy self-criticism that leads to necessary course corrections, but rather in moral relativism that’s undermining the American Experiment.
Reagan noticed this tilt away from American exceptionalism. “Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children,” he observed. “As for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style.” Gazing at that shifting cultural landscape, he warned of “an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” And here we are.
Up-and-coming generations need reminders about what makes America a great and good nation. Up-and-coming generations need to learn that the measure of a nation, like that of an individual, is direction, not perfection. Up-and-coming generations need to know that America was born headed in the right direction. But don’t take my word for it.
One of America’s greatest leaders called the Declaration of Independence “a great dream.” He boasted about how America’s founding document “distinguishes our nation and our form of government from any totalitarian system.” He described how “each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred by the state…They are God-given, gifts from His hands.” He noted that “Never before…has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.” And he believed that “God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind.”
In these words, Martin Luther King was describing American exceptionalism and cheering the American Experiment.
King and Reagan offer something of a playbook for dealing with today’s challenges.
“Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual,” Reagan counseled. “We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important—why the Pilgrims came here…who Jimmy Doolittle was…Omaha Beach…what it means to be an American.”
To that list, we might add King’s eloquent words about America; King’s example of how people of faith can effect change peacefully; how Americans rescued West Berliners and South Koreans from the prisonyard of communism, Indonesians and Japanese from tsunamis, Yazidis from ISIS, Somalis from famine, millions of Africans from AIDS and Ebola and malaria, and all mankind from polio; how America has delivered 685 million COVID-19 vaccines overseas; how America feeds the world; how America serves as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense; how the free-enterprise system provides America the resources to be a great power and a good neighbor—to defend our interests and promote our ideals.
Up-and-coming generations of Americans won’t know these things if they aren’t taught these things. This civic-education effort should begin at home—as Reagan observed, “All great change in America begins at the dinner table”—but it must extend into the broader culture. The effort needs to enfold K-12 schools, schools of education within universities and university-wide programs. Teach-the-teacher programs could help deepen what current and future educators know about America’s story. That’s where civil-society efforts (such as Sagamore’s Liberty Tracks initiative and Pathfinder project, the 1776 Unites project, and the 1620 Project), veterans groups (such the American Legion, VFW, DAV, Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America), chambers of commerce, labor-union locals, youth sports leagues, and civic-minded small businesses come into play.
As a matter of fact, it’s time for every organization—and every person—that benefits from the American Experiment to become civic-minded.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose and the Project Fortress initiative. A shorter version of this appeared in the Landing Zone.