Every Fourth of July we have a family dinner and take turns reading sections of the Declaration of Independence. When my kids were young they were thoroughly bored. When they were teenagers they rushed through the reading so they could ditch the family and see their friends, who weren’t subjected to such July 4th indignities. But my children are grown now, and this year brought their friends to our family dinner.
We handed out slices of American Flag cake along with copies of the Declaration and commenced reading, going around the table. My children were apprehensive their friends would think their parents were too corny, and their friends looked on politely, but unenthusiastically. The first few lines were familiar to everyone: “When in the Course of human events”…and…. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..."
Read beyond those first two paragraphs, though, and you get the long list of grievances the Colonials had against the King. Some of our readers this year were in the military, two were Special Forces guys, just back from some of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan. The rest were recent college graduates, struggling to find jobs, get apartments they could afford, and payoff college loans.
This year our reading of the Declaration clicked.
As we went around the table, each person reading a few sentences of the Declaration, the momentum picked up. People started reading with enthusiasm, then gusto, and mounting passion as they got further down the list of grievances. They started banging the table as the abuses mounted, and finished by chanting all together the repeated phrase,“Free and Independent States”.
It dawned on us that what happened in America in the 1770’s is like what’s happening all across the country today. We’re seeing the stirrings of a movement against Washington’s governing elite, an increasingly angry reaction to their abuse of power.
For the first time in all the years of reading the Declaration, I felt how angry the Colonials were. It wasn’t just about paying taxes, or being able to vote for members of Parliament. It was about a far-away government dictating to people who lived very different lives. It was about a big government that took from the people but gave very little in return. It was about an arrogant elite, deaf to the repeated petitions of the people. It was about abuse of power.
Think of what it must have been like for our forbearers. They had been carving out a life in the wilderness for over a hundred years, through their own determination, hard work and self-reliance.
They had been self governing not by design, but by circumstance, since the King and his Parliament were an Ocean away. But when the King started handing down new laws and taxes and increasing his interference in areas of life the Colonials had been accustomed to think of as their domain, they petitioned for redress. The King refused, instead sending a mercenary army to keep order in the Colonies. The Colonials fought back, hoping it would get the King to address their grievances and give them the rights of freeborn Englishmen. It didn’t work.
The Colonials had been pushed to the limit and realized the only option left to them was a clean break with the motherland. They sent delegates to Philadelphia to write a document listing their grievances with the King, laying out the case for why they had no choice but to demand independence. They insisted they had rights that no King could deny, because those rights came directly from the Creator. They signed, knowing it they were risking their lives and treasure. Here are some of their complaints, in language which sounds archaic, but with arguments which seem snatched from today’s headlines.
“He has refused his Assent to Laws… He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance. He has…exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within. He has obstructed the Administration of Justice…. He has erected a Multitude of new Offices… He has affected to…giving his Assent to Acts of pretended Legislation.”
There is a new dissatisfaction blowing across the country. As it was in the 1770s, the movement is not coming from the seat of power or among those who make the laws. It’s coming from the "little people," who live outside the Beltway.
You see it in opinion poll after opinion poll. The majority of people think their children’s lives will not be as good as theirs. Nearly half of all Americans are no longer proud of their country. Politicians have become a despised breed.
If this trend continues, it’s hard to see how the country can continue to carry on as usual, trading off power between one Washington elite and the other.
Why? Because the indictment is not against one party or even one president, it’s a loss of faith in the entire system, and it’s been building for a while.
The current incumbent has accelerated that sense of alienation, with an administration that enforces only the laws it likes, ignoring the rest. But both Republicans and Democrats have been in on the game; they’re so busy fighting with each other over the spoils of office, that they ignore the rest of us except at election time when they want our votes.
We are now governed by elites, some the second and third generation of elites, who have decided the rest of us aren’t smart enough to govern ourselves. They believe modern society has become so complicated that government needs to be in every nook and cranny of it, making the decisions for us, for our own good. They know what’s best for us.
This growing dissatisfaction hasn’t reached a boiling point, but it shows no signs of simmering down. The signs are everywhere.
It’s the fact that a majority of Americans say they’re independents, and no longer no longer identify either political party.
It’s the libertarians who want to reclaim decision making for themselves. It’s the small government folks who see government as a great Leviathan gobbling up more and more of their treasure and freedoms.
It’s the deficit hawks who worry we are enslaving our children and grandchildren to pay off this generation's debt.
It’s a national movement that’s growing and the reason it’s such a threat to the governing elite, is that it’s increasingly young people who are attracted to it.
And it’s now about any one issue. It’s about the breakdown of government. It’s about Washington’s failure to protect our borders, about Washington’s out of control spending, about Washington’s corruption and collusion with special interests. It’s about arrogant all-powerful government officials who answer to no one, and act outraged when anyone dares question them. It’s about a Washington elite that has turned the Declaration of Independence on its head and behaves as if the only rights Americans have are the ones they bestow on us. It’s about a pervasive attitude that America works to keep Washington elites in power, instead of Washington working for us.
One of the most cogent sections of the Declaration is the recognition that it takes a lot for people to rebel and throw off tyrants. The founders human nature, “that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are Sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed.”
No one knows where this 21st century, nascent political movement will go. Maybe it fizzles out because abuses of power are terrible but tolerable. Maybe Washington wises up and reverses direction. But maybe the Leviathan just gets too big to ignore and the people rise up, and vote them out of office, en masse.
Americans are slow to anger, but once they do get angry, they are impossible to stop. Just ask King George III.