It’s fair to ask why a country with as much promise as ours seems unable to capitalize on its extraordinary strengths to solve existential threats.
We don’t lack means to combat pandemics, climate destabilization, social injustice or seditious attempts to overthrow government. We lack the will.
How did we come to set this table?
Let’s unspool the thread of history.
Frankly, it’s an abiding wonder any nation that got off to as poor a start as ours has lasted as long as it has. God, greed and genocide were unlikely bedfellows in a nation founded on freedom — for the select few.
The secret of our survival isn’t simply armaments. It’s been our willingness to self-correct. That’s the promising news.
Less promising is what prevents achieving our potential as a nation: we aren’t quite one. Practically speaking, we’re 50 nations.
Yes, we have an overarching architecture of national defense, the Constitution and federal laws. But we don’t share an overarching vision of what this country is, was or should be. We lack a national civic culture.
We cannot even agree on such baseline matters as what legal rights come with American citizenship. In 19 states, voters must overcome hurdles not imposed on citizens living in other states to cast their ballots. In 21 states, authorities legally can kill citizens. And so on.
The hodgepodge of powers held by our 50 states are unique among nations. We’re more of a grudging confederacy of states than a people united behind national goals or common vision. Many seem to entirely have missed the memo about nationhood.
This crippling structural weakness was baked into American governance by ill-advised design. It’s a consequence of colonists’ fervid fear of being subsumed back into what they came here to escape: tyranny.
Under the stress of cobbling together a reluctant union, the Founders left powers to the states that I suspect they might now regret. Yet, despite manifest evidence of the failures that inherently follow, many Americans strive to give even more power to the states.
The Trump administration’s refusal to take responsibility for managing a national public health emergency that threatened national security — instead foisting it off on ill-prepared states — is a deadly example of what happens to countries with weak national governance.
The Founders’ biggest error was letting states decide how the nation’s citizens would be educated. They never expected women, unpropertied white males or Black people to be allowed to vote, so it’s understandable how they missed this one.
Role of education
But if we’re to produce informed citizens fit for self-rule, rigorous education is essential. Poorly educated citizens weaken nations economically and politically. Nearly every nation on Earth understands this. Except ours.
American children have never had equal access to education. Had responsibility for providing educational standards and funding been left chiefly to the federal government, equality in expenditures for every child would have been required.
It also would have prevented any single state from being, as Texas in effect has been, the deciders of how American history or science, say, will be printed in textbooks and taught in public schools.
And I daresay the economic disparities and divisive political circumstances this country now finds itself mired in would look very different.
But why do we lack a national civic culture? Hello?
In 1989 historian David Hackett Fischer dissected the origins of our country’s wildly clashing values. Sensibly, he examined what was going on where the people who first introduced these values arrived from.
In “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America,” Fischer unpacks the mismatched cultural baggage dropped on these shores by the first four waves of immigrants from England: the Puritans of Massachusetts, the nobility of Virginia, the pacifist Quakers of Delaware/Pennsylvania and the fighting Scots/Irish Borderlands people who settled Appalachia. (Albion is an archaic term for England.)
Having experienced England very differently, they saw the world through radically divergent prisms.
Religiously persecuted, Puritans — who believed children were born evil — built a society valuing education and equality, even as they insisted Christ died to save only some, not all, people. Still, they founded Harvard.
Virginia was led by lesser members of the English nobility. They weren’t keen on equality. Their sense of entitlement made slavery palatable, to the horror of Puritans.
Free labor proved profitable. The biggest, wealthiest colony, Virginia would produce more presidents than any state, including four of the first five: slaveholders Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.
Quakers arrived with King Charles II’s blessings. He paid a debt owed William Penn’s family by giving Penn lands that weren’t the king’s to give. Yet Quakers proved a moderating, respected influence. They preached and practiced forbearance for the beliefs of one’s neighbors. This was new.
Borderlands people were not respected. Cruelly dispossessed of their former homes, destitute, angry, uneducated and ill-used, they were a rough lot. Proud and independent-minded, they, unlike the Quakers, relished a fight.
While Puritans gifted us respect for equality and education, Virginians normalized inequality and slavery, producing slaveholding presidents whose election to highest office cloaked slavery in respectability.
Quakers taught that democracy requires forbearance, while Borderlands people seeded a culture of fierce disdain of government.
Our values didn’t evolve normally, in situ over historic time. They were suddenly seeded, into the soil of a supposedly empty landscape, from troubled foreign precincts.
Centuries on, we’re still sorting how to weed and feed this unruly transplanted garden.
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.