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This nation was founded on change. People were uprooted from their very existence to come here. Most people gave up everything and everyone they had known (some forcibly), were dropped into a virtually unknown world, then forced to invent a completely new way of life. Even native-Americans were forced by events into constantly adapting.

That process of change has been endless throughout our history, inventing new ways of doing things and fighting through endless obstacles to do it. Only historians can properly mark all the turning points to this process, but certain eras stand out, periods when national events and circumstances led to major changes in our very fabric as a society.

The first, of course, was the Revolutionary War and everything that led up to it. It literally created the idea of us as a nation, but it did much more than that, and we forget it at our peril. The American Revolution was founded on ideas. The Founders themselves had a whole bunch of motives, some of them as corrupt as perpetuating slavery, but they set the whole artifice on top of ideas, things like “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. We all learned those words in school, but what isn’t often taught is the impact these ideas had on common people. Of course the Founders represented the wealthy class of white men, but the ideas spoke to everyone. Pamphlets like Common Sense were widely read, and the very process of violent revolution set off a deep questioning by regular folks: “Doesn’t this mean me, too?” Wealth and power was able to suppress that questioning, but the process of social challenge had begun, and it continues to this day.

The second period was the Civil War. It not only ended the curse of slavery, but solidified the very idea of a central government, of true nationhood. Without this, none of the rest could have happened. That war, and the violence and disruption and technological advances that accompanied it, opened the door for the vast expansion that followed.

The third great turning point was World War II and the Great depression that led to it. That era did a lot more than turn us into a modern nation and a superpower to boot. With FDR at the helm, it created … for the very first time … the idea that the purpose of government was to serve the people, that there was a better way. Together with the new technological developments, it ushered in modern life as we know it.

The fourth era was the Civil rights Movement of the 50s and 60s, a vast struggle that set off far more than just a fight against racism. Over time that movement ultimately set off a true national soul-searching, laying the seeds of women rights and gay rights and environmental protection, nothing less than the endless movements for social and economic justice that we know today.

The final era is now.

It’s hard to look at the run of our day-to-day lives and think of it as historic. It’s even harder to see things like Trump and January 6th as just momentary facets in that history, but that is exactly what they are. We live at a true national fork in the road, for our era is the culmination of all the change set off by the 50s and 60s, then put on steroids by the advent of the internet. Cultural change … the very social norms that tell us right from wrong … have accelerated at an unheard of rate during recent decades, and their very direction is now at stake.

On the one hand, all this change offers us a vision of a truly just society. For the very first time in American history, the idea of achieving that truly just society is no longer an illusion, an idealist dream. Achieving it may be outside our lifetimes, but the fact that the majority of Americans do agree with the principal of a just society is truly historic.

On the other hand, that same vast amount of hurried social change has set off an intense reaction, a massive desire to turn back the clock. That reaction has been manipulated over time by a lot of money and some very careful organizing, and turned into real political power.

All of this, both the good and the bad, is about identity. It’s about our identity as Democrats, and as Americans. The very values that will determine the future of this country are at stake: a vision of the future as a truly just society, or the age-old draw of tribalism and intolerance, of greed and power and selfishness. As we celebrate the Fourth, we need to reflect on this, the struggle that was set off so long ago by the opening words of the Declaration of Independence, then stamped with blood during the Civil War, and pushed forward so painfully through all the years that followed. That is our true heritage as Democrats, and the very best reason of all to celebrate the Fourth of July.

J.M. Purvis

(Reprinted from Dems101 Blog - July 2023)

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