Americans are dissatisfied, and that is good. Discontent is the lifeblood of democracy.
A recent poll from Politico concludes that 75% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Another recent poll from the Pew Center found that only 17% of Americans are “proud” of the country. When asked how they feel about the state of the country, 71% said “angry,” 66% said “fearful.” Only 46% are “hopeful.” Pew reports that only 12% of Americans say they are satisfied with the country.
These numbers indicate a low point for the American spirit. But they also show that Americans are not stupid. It is smart to be dissatisfied when there is a pandemic, economic collapse, confused leadership, and racial injustice. It is surprising that anyone is satisfied with the country today.
The United States is a land of dissatisfaction. People come here because they don’t like the old country. The early Americans were not satisfied with British colonial rule. The Civil War and the civil rights movement were expressions of deep dissatisfaction. Donald Trump rode to power on a wave of discontent.
And the waves roll on. This nation is a changing multitude. We have too much liberty to remain united for long. America is anti-abortion protesters and Black Lives Matter marchers. It is the anarchists of Seattle and the law and order crowd in Washington, DC. Our divisions and our discontent are signs of the vitality of our democracy. In a dull and dying country, no one has the energy to be fed up and people lack the right to express their unhappiness. But in a vibrant and free country, the yearning for change is loud and proud.
Some dream of bland homogeneity. They want an America that looks like what they see in the mirror. They dream perhaps of resting in peace. But life is a bubbling, boiling confusion. There never was homogeneity on this vast continent. The native tribes of pre-Columbian times were diverse. For five hundred years, new generations of immigrants have brought different cultures, religions, and ideas.
The thing that unites us is our freedom to criticize and our right to think for ourselves. Liberty creates difference. The more freedom, the more divergence. From creative liberty and diversity of experience emerges energy and enthusiasm. Let’s embrace the fact that to be an American means to be cranky and critical, argumentative and evolving.
The idea of productive discontent is central to the American myth. The Fourth of July commemorates this process. This nation was born out of the destruction of the old. We celebrate it by blowing things up! We hope that from the fireworks, something better will emerge.
The Declaration of Independence can be read as the expression of the complaints of a youthful spirit. It’s timeless words about self-evident truths give way to an extended diatribe against old King George, who is described as a mean and tyrannical father figure.
Thomas Jefferson was only 33 years old when he worked on the Declaration. And while the Declaration described the King as an absolute tyrant seeking to impose an absolute despotism over the colonies, not everyone on the committee agreed. John Adams was an older man. He thought the accusation of tyranny was too personal and sounded like “scolding.”
A decade later, Jefferson said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” This physical analogy is enlightening. Storm clouds build as the atmosphere heats up. There is thunder and lightning, rain and hail. But this clears the air and waters the crops.
This idea, that a little rebellion is a good thing, seems uniquely American. This is the spirit of youth and rock and roll. It is the creative destruction of the capitalist economy. It spurs innovation in technology and scientific revolutions.
The simmering dissatisfaction of the present will boil over and give shape to something new. Of course, there are dangers. Lightning can kill and flash floods can wash away things we love. But that’s life. We never really rest in peace until the day is done or freedom is extinguished. Liberty creates discontent. But from dissatisfaction, creative innovation develops, as today’s storms nurture tomorrow’s fruit.