My man’s not running for president, so I can say without fear that 2008 was the first time in my adult life that I was truly proud of this country. It was an unusual feeling, exhilarating even, but it’s since passed.
My pride then had nothing to do with Barack Obama’s candidacy. Rather, all the system-changing participation of the election season—the best turnout rate since 1960, historic numbers of black voters—made me believe the sleeping beast of participatory democracy had awoken.
Nor is Obama’s presidency the reason my pride has waned. Rather, the buzz kill started even before his inauguration, as the activist citizenry of 2008 quickly settled into the passive hero worship of 2009.
Naomi Klein said it best, back in a May appearance on Charlie Rose. “This thing that happens to us, particularly in times of crisis, where we almost regress, and we want to believe our leaders are going to take care of us—I think that’s unhealthy,” she offered, in thinking about the post-election zeitgeist. “He is the president of the most powerful nation on Earth, and the superfan culture of the campaign has to be replaced with an engaged-citizen culture that puts respectful pressure from below.”
But that’s not what Americans do or at least not what we’ve done in my 35-year lifetime. For all the Fourth of July hype around our ethos of independence and revolution, I’ve never seen an America that meaningfully questions the powers-that-be. We gripe about them, yes. We vow to throw the bums out. But the truth is, when the going gets tough, Americans get compliant. Thus, eight years of George W. Bush.
There are lots of explanations for it, of course. The two-party system and outsized influence of lobbyists and donors crowd out the average Jeromes. The grassroots organizers that help everyday citizens get involved are consistently under-funded and overwhelmed. Whole swaths of America have been actively discouraged from participating in society’s collective management for generations—blacks, immigrants, youth, the poor. Schools suck at teaching citizenship. The list goes on.
Still, whatever the cause, the outcome’s nothing to be proud of. And maybe that’s what Michelle meant last February—that the gap between our ideals and our actions has so often been so large that it’s shameful. No amount of flag waving can shoo away the fact that our government has rarely lived up to the creed that created it.
Take the ideal of equal opportunity. No value is more central to America’s proud sense of itself. We preach it worldwide, and people flock from all quarters in pursuit of our American Dream. Yet, a quarter of all black folks live in poverty, and millions of immigrants slave away in indentured servitude, while those who profit from illegal labor hide greed behind nationalism. Imbalance has in fact come to define our economic life, as the richest 1 percent of America hoards nearly $17 trillion in wealth. From childhood health to retirement security, the outcomes are simply far too skewed to argue that the opportunities are evenly distributed.
The ideas America’s founders wrote down were good ones, certainly things to proudly celebrate. But they are just so many words on faded archival paper if we do nothing to make them real.
From the abolition movement forward, many American social movements have struggled to do so. Then as now, those movements were powered not by grand acts but through countless seemingly small contributions—speaking up against injustice in our workplaces, participating in our community groups, engaging our local policymakers. That’s what gave me so much pride last year, watching millions of baby steps turn into one big leap. Why’d we stop walking? Perhaps the proverb is true, and pride truly goes before a fall.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.