July 4th beckons us to the long view, to appreciate that the grand American experiment has long been convulsed by protest and violence.
We were, after all, born in revolution and forged in civil war. Uprisings, riots, assassinations and other bloody confrontations have marked our history ever since.
Our nation cruelly oppressed blacks and subjugated Native Americans, but we also provided refuge and opportunity to millions from far flung lands. Half of the world’s Jews, for example, now live in the U.S. Our freedom and wealth continue to attract more immigrants than any other nation.
This complicated history reminds us that the turmoil now engulfing our nation is nothing new. It shows that we have often emerged from such periods as a better nation. As hard it as might be – and honestly, I have moments of doubt – our past suggests that the troubling excesses now on display (from anti-democratic mobs razing public monuments to an unrestrained “cancel culture” ruining private lives) will not destroy our nation.
But each moment is different and to understand this one we must acknowledge a key but largely ignored driver of the current protests: The anger and frustration resulting from the broken promises and systemic failures of liberal social policies.
While the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 successfully dismantled Jim Crow, LBJ’s Great Society promised a “war on poverty” through government programs including Medicaid, food stamps and public housing.
We have spent trillions on these programs in the decades since. Yes, all that money – and other programs such as affirmative action – have made some difference. But the disparities in health and wealth, in crime rates and education, between wealthier Americans and the urban blacks and rural whites those programs targeted, have diminished little.
A chief reason is that macroeconomic factors – especially global competition that has led to stagnant wages, especially for low-skilled workers – overwhelmed government interventions.
As a result government money aimed at raising up people has often bred dependence. Welfare programs also destabilized the family; out-of-wedlock births have soared for all groups since 1965.
Instead of acknowledging the failure of their schemes, many liberals embraced strategies of denial. They claim their efforts would work, if we just spent more. They never say how much, and it’s hard to disprove a fantasy – would $100 trillion do the trick? – but note that per pupil spending has more than doubled since 1970 with little, if any, improvement in educational outcomes.
More recently, they have allied with the illiberal left, which specializes in indicting American culture – and “white people” in particular – for our nation’s ills while tirelessly silencing its opponents. The problem, they suggest, is not ineffective policies but the Founding Fathers.
Among other things, this false narrative demands that we dismiss the vast strides our nation has made in race relations, pretend that the countless groups considered “white” embrace a cohesive identity and assume this nonexistent entity is bent on preserving their “supremacy.”
This canard also revives a racist trope, suggesting blacks are dependent on whites for deliverance.
As this cultural scorched-earth policy demands that we accept such falsehoods, it offers an ideology of grievance instead of effective responses to the real problems plaguing many African Americans. It won’t reduce crime, improve schools or create wealth.
It is not even a first step.
I believe in America, in the goodness of our people. The universal revulsion at George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis is the latest proof of that. We will come out of this stronger, but only if we see the roots of the problems clearly.