This will be a strange July Fourth.
Sure, there will be the normal cookouts and fireworks. But this July Fourth it seems the country is more deeply divided over politics than I can recall.
Majorities of Americans say they have a negative view of the president, the House and the Senate.
Bitter disputes over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election dominate national headlines.
Then there is a further divide over black NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
And who can avoid the loud arguments over immigration and the recent outrage at the policy of separating children from their parents?
With all that negativity in the air, some people may wonder if it is the right moment to celebrate the country.
That is especially true among people on the liberal side of politics, since conservatives control the White House, Congress and increasingly the courts. Some people might legitimately ask the depressing question: What the hell is happening to my country?
But even for the people most anxious about current American politics, there remains one central achievement to celebrate.
The Constitution written by the Founding Fathers has been able to survive crooked politicians, the Civil War, two world wars, economic depression and international terror. To this day, the U.S. Constitution stands as an ageless marvel – the schematic for the greatest political system in world history.
And this, I believe, is an achievement worthy of fireworks.
To me, the Fourth isn’t about honoring any particular political party or administration, no matter how much any politicians might try to drape themselves in red, white and blue.
The joy of the Fourth is that it celebrates the people who created a system that is bigger than dark political moments; big enough to withstand change and evolve through time.
Two years ago I wrote a celebrated book – “We the People: The Modern-Day Figures Who Have Reshaped and Affirmed the Founding Fathers’ Vision of America.” In it, I asked readers to imagine what our Founding Fathers would have thought if they visited America today, in the early 21st century.
How would they react to learning that women – who could not own property or vote in the colonial period – hold 107 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives?
How would they react to President Obama and the reality that a black man had been president for eight years? In their Constitution, blacks could not vote and were legally enslaved.
How would they react to a racially diverse America? At the time they wrote the Constitution the citizens of the new nation were nearly all white. Blacks and Native Americans were not considered citizens.
Today about 40 percent of the nation is not white.
Today gay people can legally marry.
Today the U.S. is the world’s greatest military power and part of a global economic system.
Yes, so much has changed since the Declaration of Independence was read out loud 242 years ago on July Fourth.
But the power of an idea – the American idea – that all people are equal under law and that all people have individual rights, “among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” including a guaranteed voice in democratic politics, remains the brightest beacon of political stability ever known.
And the key reason for the durability of the American idea is that the Founding Fathers 11 years later wrote a Constitution that put trust in future generations of Americans to continue the work needed to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Their Constitution is flexible, allowing for amendments to cope with future political realities, such as ending slavery.
Their Constitution allowed for changes that enabled women to gain the right to vote in the 20th century.
And their Constitution allowed for changes to immigration law that have made America a land of immigrants from every corner of the world.
I’m certain the Founding Fathers would be surprised that two Irish-Catholics who would have been outcasts in the colonies – President Kennedy and his brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy – pushed Congress to allow people from all over the world to become Americans. They were the brains and muscle behind the famous Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
In the founders’ era, only “free white person(s) … of good character” could become American citizens. Over the next 150 years, Congress passed law after law making it difficult for all but Western Europeans to gain citizenship – sometimes through national quotas; sometimes through outright bans.
The Kennedy brothers grew up with stories about how hard it had been for their Irish-Catholic ancestors when they arrived in Boston during the previous century. As the first Catholic president in a largely Protestant nation, JFK knew personally what it meant to be an outsider, and identified with the families blocked from entry into the United States.
So the Kennedy brothers – as well as President Lyndon Johnson; Sen. Philip Hart, D-Mich.; and Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y. – lobbied for and eventually won passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This new law replaced the old, discriminatory quota system with a process that favored skilled workers and family reunification.
The result is a stronger America that benefits from the drive and ambition of people who want to join the American family.
As different types of people were welcomed in America, the nation’s face changed; whites dropped from 84 percent of the population in 1965, to 62 percent in 2015. And the immigrants enriched the country with different languages, food and culture.
Despite seismic shifts in demographics, economics and politics, we still live by the Constitution. We remain a nation of laws.
Time for fireworks worthy of that good news.