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Will we make it? What’s on the other side?
Two hundred forty six years ago, in 1776, the United States declared its independence. Those who most needed to be persuaded—the British ruling classes—took some convincing, but after seven years of fighting and two more of negotiating, they came around.
The winners—the Americans—weren’t sure what they had won. Britain no longer presumed to tell them what to do, but they couldn’t decide who among them could tell others among them what to do. Could Virginia dictate to Massachusetts? Could Virginia even suggest to Massachusetts? Who made laws for Americans? How were the laws to be enforced?
A first try at a national government foundered when the Articles of Confederation failed to answer those questions persuasively. A second try produced the Constitution we live under today.
Since the 1789 restart of the federal government, America’s institutions of public life have been remarkably stable. The one serious challenge—the attempted secession of eleven southern states in the 1860s—was crushed summarily, and nothing like it has been attempted since.
And now we’re approaching the quarter-millennium mark of the American republic. Preparations are already underway to commemorate the great moment. Congress has established the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission; museums and historical societies are scouring their holdings for the novel artifact or document that encapsulates the American experience.
Yet more than a few people observing the state of American politics these days can’t help wondering if we’re going to make it to 250—at peace, and in one piece. There will be two sets of elections to Congress and one presidential election before then. Never have elections been eyed so dubiously by so many voters. Republicans still claim the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and many are treating the violent attempt to prevent certification of the results by Congress as a praiseworthy exercise of popular power. Democrats undermine confidence in voting differently, accusing the Republicans of measures to keep black and brown people—by which they mean Democrats—from the polls.
In 2000, a contested election was resolved by the Supreme Court, and though the verdict in favor of Republican George W. Bush was controversial, the Democrats accepted it and moved on. The Supreme Court today is seen as more partisan than it was then, and it’s unlikely the Democrats would be so gracious should something similar arise in 2024.
An election result perceived as illegitimate by the losing side poses the most obvious threat to our date with 250. It was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 as a minority and sectional candidate—Lincoln received less than 40 percent of the popular vote and no electors from the South—that triggered secession.
Yet the Supreme Court is newly polarizing after its reversing of Roe v. Wade. A presidential term is but four years; the term of a Supreme Court justice can be many times as long. And there’s no appeal from a Supreme Court decision, short of a constitutional amendment—an impossible task these days.
Will the Union break apart between now and 2026? It seems unlikely, if only given the inertia of history. But inertia can manifest as apathy, and before the Unionist majority awakens to the danger, a secessionist minority might seize an opportunity and exploit it. In this way small South Carolina spurred secession forward in 1860. In a separate context, Brexit advocates caught the remainers sleeping in 2016 and busted up the European Union.
Another possibility is that the country will stay together but democracy will be hollowed out. It’s not unlikely that the Republican nominee in 2024 will win the electoral vote while losing the popular vote, again. This will be perfectly constitutional and, from the Republican point of view, entirely proper. But it will seem to Democrats to reveal that the system is incurably tilted against popular government. Republicans will point out that the Constitution is not a democratic charter; Democrats will rejoin that in the 21st century it ought to be.
Disillusionment with democracy might take other forms, as it already has. America’s dismal record on dealing with covid accomplished the dubious feat of making America look bad by comparison with both European liberal democracies and China’s despotic regime. America’s immigration policy is simultaneously heartless and feckless. Mass shootings have numbed the country. Last summer was the hottest in America; this summer is on track to be even hotter. And measures to temper the sizzle are missing in action.
We’ll probably get to 250, although we might stagger across the finish line. Big ships don’t turn quickly.
So maybe the question should be reframed. What would it take for Americans to feel good about their country at the quarter-millennium mark? I don’t know if I’ll still be teaching then, but assuming I am, what shall I tell my students to be hopeful about looking toward the second quarter-millennium?