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America, we have a problem

Taking stock on the Fourth of July.

BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images

“Our hearts should expand on this day, which calls to memory the conquest achieved by knowledge over ignorance, willing co-operation over blind obedience, opinion over prejudice, new ways over old ways, when . . . America declared her national independence.”

Close to two centuries ago, the reformer, lecturer, and activist Fanny Wright urged her fellow Americans, with these words, to view the July 4th holiday not just as an opportunity for commemoration, but also as an impetus for national improvement.

Such sentiments have rarely seemed as necessary as they do now, on the 244th celebration of American independence.

In the America of 2020, ignorance is overtaking knowledge, blind obedience disrupts willing cooperation, and old ways block innovation and progress. To put it simply, America is a broken country.


These are difficult words to write and they surely are difficult to read, but they are unquestionably true. In just over three months, COVID-19 has killed some 130,000 Americans. While some other countries have seen their COVID-19 cases level off or decline, the tally of new cases here is rising to the highest levels since this pandemic began. Months of sacrifice by millions of our fellow citizens and by selfless health care workers have been squandered — and the worst may be yet to come.

Tens of millions of others remain unemployed or stuck at home, awaiting a return to normalcy that seems further away than ever.

This tale of failure can and largely should be placed at the feet of Donald Trump. His response to COVID-19 has been one of incompetence, failure, and astonishing indifference. But America didn’t break on Nov. 8, 2016. The fractures in our body politic were readily apparent well before then.

For years, we’ve lamented the unending carnage from gun violence. And there is a national consensus that something must be done to stop it. Yet it continues.


Opioids have become one of the greatest killers of Americans — taking close to 70,000 lives per year. Practically everyone agrees this is a crisis, but little has been done to address it.

While hundreds of millions around the world are living longer lives, life expectancy in the United States declined over the last three consecutive years recorded. We are have among the highest rates of obesity, maternal and infant mortality, and childhood poverty in the developed world. America, once viewed as a world leader, even a city on a hill, has become a nation worthy of pity.

Millions lack health insurance, affordable child care, or even paid sick leave, as the gap between rich and poor has grown wider and wider. Institutional racism remains a defining aspect of American society. All the while, the chronic dysfunction of our political system — and the sharpening of our political divides — has made progress nearly impossible.

Americans have long declared that this is the greatest country on earth. Many still believe that. But our enthusiasm seems to be waning. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, only one in six Americans said they feel proud “when thinking about the state of the country.”

It’s long past time that we give up the myth of national greatness and acknowledge that we are a country in crisis. We have allowed division and dysfunction to paralyze America. We are treading water while other nations pass us by.


It’s time to break with those advocating smaller government, less regulation, and a businessman’s approach to the affairs of state. We need to prize political experience and the kind of national transformation that can only come from a generous, compassionate, and responsive government.

“Better were the prospects of a people under the influence of the worst government who should hold the power of changing it, than those of a people under the best who should hold no such power,” Fanny Wright said in 1828. “Here, then is the great beauty of American government.” But that power exists only if it wielded.

It is not enough to simply choose better leaders, though obviously that would be a good start; America cannot be renewed without an end to the Trump era. We must look deeper and seek a wholesale transformation of our national politics.

As Americans, we must demand not half measures, but rather fulsome solutions that match the scope of the challenges we face. That means protecting every American from economic dislocation; a health care system that leaves no one on the outside looking in; a justice system that treats each citizen equally; a comprehensive approach to dealing with climate change; an end to the overweening power and influence of the wealthiest and best connected; and a commitment to a long unrealized national ethos that recognizes the worth of each citizen, irrespective of color, creed, gender, or national origin.


For all the reasons to despair over the corrosive impact of Trumpism, we can take some solace in the new spirit of activism that has defined our recent politics. From the Women’s March and March For Our Lives, to the climate change rallies and Black Lives Matter protesters, millions of Americans have left their comfort zones for the uncertain world of political activism. These movements flow naturally from the long sweep of American history — from the abolitionists who fought to end slavery to the labor activists of the early 20th century to the civil rights marchers of the 1960s.

They also reflect a view of patriotism voiced by Fanny Wright nearly two centuries ago: namely the patriot as “a lover of human liberty and human improvement, rather than a mere lover of the country in which he lives, or the tribe to which he belongs.” Today, that would mean thinking of ourselves not as Democrats or Republicans, blue staters or red staters, liberals or conservatives, but as Americans united in common purpose with the common goal of righting our ship of state.

This July 4th hardly feels like a time for celebration. What is needed this year is not blind faith in America, but a recognition that national renewal is desperately needed and it begins with us.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.