All too often Americans take the phrase “We the People” for granted. This may be the result of educational institutions failing to teach the profoundness of the phrase, yet its gravitas is worthy of such exploration. The United States, unlike other nations that grew organically, was founded upon the transformative enlightenment ideas that grew out of 18th century Europe which emphasized liberty and democracy. Because of this, “We the People” serves as a striking message for future generations that this nation was different – established by the American creed for the sanctity of civil society, rather than a monarch or heavenly mandate. Thus, there should be a considerable orator rendered to it, inducing not only a unified identity, but also a community that is able to act on its own independent terms.
Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, the institutions that once defined the previous generations have all but vanished. Whether the empty churches or recreational centers, civic engagement has declined rapidly. This has led many to lose a sense of purpose or virtue, exacerbating substance abuse and depression. Some new institutions have been created, but it is questionable if they render satisfactory to the old. Irving Kristol humorously described a similar development:
“Young people, especially, are looking for religion so desperately that they are inventing new ones. They should not have to invent new ones; the old religions are pretty good.”
The failure of community has also affected the efficacy of localism, a concept pushed by James Madison in the Federalist Papers. With fewer school board members, and less local political participation, issues continually get nationalized to an unhealthy degree – creating more polarization that need not occur if the local institutions and government performed the duties. The more American society deviates from institutions to rabid individualism, the harder it becomes for the country to stay united. This is an unfortunate development, as statesmen such as Alexis de Tocqueville describes in Democracy in America, it was not always like this. He wrote:
“Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
For Tocqueville, the exceptionalism of America was embedded in its ambitious populace.
The possibility of reviving community in America is an arduous task. Such a shift requires a moral, ethical, and circumstantial change that may not be practical. It is not a given that such a society should exist, as America even when during peak community stood almost alone in the world in sheer success and number. A religious revival similar to “The Great Awakenings” of the last two centuries could kick start a revolution in American life, however it would require a shift in how Americans currently perceive religion from a mostly cosmological to sociological function. Eric Kaufman describes in Shall Religious Inherit the Earth? that sheer demographic advantages of religious communities may render this inevitable – as the divide between secular and traditional families grows ever greater. No matter how the country changes in the years to come, not only religiously but also ethnically – also explained by Kaufman in his book Whiteshift – the future of American community is dependent on those that forge the next generation.
Practically speaking, legislative solutions remain available. It is imperative for the sense of sodality to rejuvenate itself within the next generation, and through requiring civic learning even in elementary school, it can further the shared goal of creating a social generation akin to the spirit of those before. Ironically, it is civic engagement that is necessary for this to become a reality.
As society continuously spirals into proverbial disunity, one must begin to wonder if “We the People” still run the show, and if not, what steps must be taken to restore control. Putting aside political differences, both the right and left have clearly not been beneficiaries of rampant individuation – as even political party registration has declined. Maybe it is time, then, to refind the exceptionalism so intrinsic to the American tradition before it fades to black indefinitely.