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“A Republic, if you can keep it”: Can we? Research finds younger gen losing faith in America

According to legend, Benjamin Franklin was leaving the just-adjourned Constitutional Convention in 1787 when a woman shouted, “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?”

To which he responded, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

You can see why the story has gained legendary status. It sets the scene nicely, with a crowd of Americans waiting to learn what form of government had been decided upon; Benjamin Franklin’s brief but quick response; and the ominous warning within it.

This Independence Day, I’m reminded that our founding ideals are not just a one-time journey but require constant commitment by every new generation.

Unfortunately, younger generations are more skeptical of democracy than older generations. In fact, according to the Mood of the Nation Poll by Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy, one in five adults from Generation Z and millennials indicated that a “dictatorship could be good if the situation were right,” compared to about three percent of those in the older generations.

First reaction? Those are staggering numbers.

If future generations of Americans aren’t connected to our form of government, as laid out by our founding fathers in the Constitution, we could be at real risk of eroding – or even losing – our democratic republic, as Franklin once warned.

The way to “keep it” is for the next generation to believe in it and be invested in it.

It’s hard to hear that Americans may be losing trust with the principles that have animated us from the beginning – and made us exceptional in the world.

But here’s another way to look at it.

This presents an opportunity. It’s a chance to connect younger generations to the uniqueness of the American opportunity in all of human history and the progress that it’s made possible.

And there’s plenty of reason for optimism and hope.

It’s easy to get caught up in the gloom and doom online or in the news, since the most extreme voices are the loudest and suck all the oxygen out of the room. But what we see in real life is people sharing the values of our country – sometimes without even realizing it.

French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this in America as early as 1835. From Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s brief in the Fulton v. Philadelphia Supreme Court case:

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the peculiar talent of Americans to spontaneously join forces to achieve goals, great and small — notwithstanding wide-ranging viewpoints — and the mutually reinforcing relationship between voluntary association in civil society and political self-governance…

Alexis de Tocqueville warned that “[f]or men to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating must become developed among them and be perfected,” observing that “[i]n democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of the former.” Indeed he considered there to be a necessary connection between the principle of association and that of equality, because, if equal— i.e., equally powerless—individuals never “acquire[d] the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered.”

Tocqueville also saw associations as the bulwark against isolated individuals becoming subdued by a government that alone acted as the font of ideas, opinions, and the energy necessary to undertake great goals. Without voluntary associations, a destructive cycle would ensue, weakening the will and the ability of individuals to manage their own affairs. ‘The more [government] . . . puts itself in the place of associations, the more individuals, losing the idea of associating, will need it to come to their aid. These are causes and effects that engender each other without stopping.’”

This instinct to come together with one another and solve problems was distinctly American. Per the Constitutional Rights Foundation:

“[Alexis] de Tocqueville went on to observe that Americans naturally formed groups when they wanted to hold a celebration, found a church, build a school, distribute books or do almost anything else. ‘Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling …they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government … in the United States you are sure to find an association.’”

Nearly two centuries later, this instinct survives – and thrives.

It’s firefighters from California and Illinois heading to Puerto Rico to help with disaster aid after flooding and Hurricane Maria, respectively – because we’re stronger together. It’s an immigrant to the United States becoming co-owner of the L.A. Dodgers and then overseeing a naturalization ceremony on that team’s field for more than 2,000 new citizens – because the American Dream is possible and enriched by new ideas, talents, and perspectives. It’s truckers sharing supplies with stranded drivers on a highway during a winter storm – because we recognize each other’s inherent dignity. It’s a grandfather returning to college to obtain a college degree alongside his granddaughter – because of the promise and opportunity offered by America. It’s Alice Johnson receiving clemency from former President Donald Trump after serving 21 years for a non-violent crime – because it’s never too late for justice. It’s America leading the world in givingbecause Americans are generous and look after each other.

Independence Day may have already ended, but we have the opportunity to celebrate and recommit ourselves to our founding ideals every day and build the muscle of self-government that makes the idea of America a reality – whether it’s through door-knocking for a candidate or movement you believe in, volunteering at a non-profit, or engaging with your neighbors.

So if some people, especially younger ones, view America and our Constitution negatively, consider this your invitation to show them what the words on paper look like in reality.

The way that you live your life and the ideals you espouse and promote can help lead people to understand that “to live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race,” as Calvin Coolidge put it.

4th of July mixed tape

If you want to keep celebrating America’s birthday this week by getting even better connected to the thinking and impact of our founding principles, then, boy, do I have you covered:

  • The Bill of Rights Institute offers a free playlist about America’s first president, George Washington. Listen here.
  • “We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests.” I know I’m not the only one who gets chills from – our favorite summer blockbuster executive – President Whitmore’s speech in Independence Day!

  • Did you know AFP started its own podcast, called American Potential? Check out this episode on the American Dream, featuring LIBRE Public Affairs Director Cesar Grajales, about his family’s journey from Colombia to the U.S., with just $80.

  • My colleague and AFP Vice President of Government Affairs Akash Chougule sat down with Mike Rowe – the former Dirty Jobs host – to talk principles, work, and the American dream.

  • Lastly, Arthur Brooks on Americans pursuing happiness: “The solution is as simple as it is difficult: Love one another.” Read more.
Where does Juneteenth fit in?

Independence Day also marks two weeks since Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the day the last enslaved Americans learned of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The addition in 2021 of Juneteenth as a federal holiday means that Americans now have even more opportunities to celebrate our founding ideals and the promise of the American dream.

I wrote a short thread on Twitter about the holiday – what it means as an opportunity and as a celebration:

Stand Together Foundation Board Member Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries (who served as New Jersey Secretary of State under Governor Christine Todd Whitman) wrote an op-ed for Fox News on the way “Juneteenth reflects an enduring commitment to our founding principles and embodies our nation’s greatest attributes.”

While his op-ed is centered around Juneteenth, the truth is that it’s a beautiful love letter to the United States of America:

“[Juneteenth] shows that we have an incredible capacity to self-correct, righting the worst wrongs in our society. It says that even those who’ve been hurt the most can help heal our nation, putting aside anger in favor of applying America’s timeless principles…

Juneteenth shows the power of our founding principles and the strength of the system our founders created. If we could overcome slavery, which many call America’s original sin, then we’re capable of tackling any challenge. We simply need to use the Constitution’s structure to advance the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. I can think of no more ringing endorsement of our national model…

It’s a chance to remind ourselves, and each other, that America doesn’t need a new foundation. Just the opposite: We should build on the sturdy, principled foundation we already have.”

God bless America! She sure looks good for being 247 years old, and she’s only going to get better with time. Let’s hope the same for each of us!

P.S. Next month, my AFP colleague James Czerniawski, will take over the newsletter to discuss artificial intelligence (AI). Stay tuned!


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