Is the American Idea Doomed? – The Atlantic

Source: Is the American Idea Doomed? – The Atlantic, by Yoni Appelbaum

Not yet—but it has precious few supporters on either the left or the right.

The American idea, Parker declared in an 1850 speech, comprised three elements: that all people are created equal, that all possess unalienable rights, and that all should have the opportunity to develop and enjoy those rights. Securing them required “a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people,” Parker said.

When the Union prevailed, it enshrined this vision in the Constitution … The United States and its allies triumphed in two world wars and in a third that was undeclared—the first, Woodrow Wilson said, waged so that the world might “be made safe for democracy”; the second, Franklin D. Roosevelt explained, “to meet the threat to our democratic faith”; and the third, Ronald Reagan declared, to settle “the question of freedom for all mankind.” Each victory brought with it a fresh surge of democratization around the world. And each surge ebbed, in part because the pursuit of equality, rights, and opportunity guarantees ongoing contention while the alternatives offer the illusion of stability.

It is no surprise that younger Americans have lost faith in a system that no longer seems to deliver on its promise—and yet, the degree of their disillusionment is stunning.

Even as the left is made queasy by the notion that an idea can be both good and distinctively American, many on the right now doubt that America is a land defined by a distinctive idea at all.

The greatest danger facing American democracy is complacence. The democratic experiment is fragile, and its continued survival improbable. Salvaging it will require enlarging opportunity, restoring rights, and pursuing equality, and thereby renewing faith in the system that delivers them. This, really, is the American idea: that prosperity and justice do not exist in tension, but flow from each other. Achieving that ideal will require fighting as if the fate of democracy itself rests upon the struggle—because it does.