What is there to celebrate?
In the weeks leading up to this Fourth of July — the 240th since the American colonies made official their break from British rule — a pair of national polls came out with news we already knew.
“Americans’ satisfaction with U.S. direction remains low,” intoned the headline of a Gallup report.
Earlier in June, the Pew Research Center found that political polarization had become so intense, 55 percent of Democrats said the Republican Party made them “afraid.” As for Republicans, 49 percent said the same of the Democratic Party.
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Just think of the things that cleave us: the wall, Brexit, last week’s Supreme Court ruling on abortion.
More than at any time in memory, we — if “we” even still applies — seem to be living in two very different, fearful countries.
Except on the Fourth of July.
For one day, much of the dread and discord dissolve. “We” truly become we. Don’t we?
“Absolutely we do,” said Milton Horne, a William Jewell College professor of religion. “I think of it in terms of a civil religion.
“This is a ritual of coming together … partly because, by golly, it’s ours. These are great ceremonies we perform every year that capture our deepest convictions about liberty and equality.
“We know the convictions are there even if we can’t always work them out.”
During the six years in which Jackson County Parks and Recreation has hosted a July Fourth festival at Longview Lake, attendance has swelled annually. If the weather cooperates Monday, the turnout could top 20,000 — at least double the number that turned out in 2011.
Even through trying economic times, Michele Newman, the parks department’s director, said she can’t recall once hearing a taxpayer gripe about public funds spent on the Independence Day bash. Corporate sponsors are eager to cover most of the costs, she said, bringing the government’s tab to roughly $60,000.
When the county first rolled out its Longview Lake ritual, complete with fireworks and video of local military members stationed overseas, Blue Springs was among several area municipalities thinking of pulling the plug on Fourth of July events.
The national recession had just begun to deliver its toll on local tax collections.
Blue Springs officials had meetings that broached the question: With personnel being cut, shouldn’t we ax the non-essentials?
But they decided they just couldn’t lose the Fourth.
“There was this sense of patriotic duty, especially for those of us who served in the military,” said Mayor Carson Ross.
And especially in divisive times, he added: “If you can get people to come together and feel good about their nation, good about this city, then it’s worthwhile.”
Kansas towns did the same.
“Beginning around 2010, cities really had to cut anything they could,” said Erik Sartorius, executive director of the Kansas League of Municipalities. “Fireworks were quickly on the board.”
For a year or two, the skies stayed dark on July Fourth over some locales. But many more towns would pass the hat, round up the volunteers and continue to throw parades and shoot rockets at minimal public cost.
“Here, it’s never been an issue. We just do it,” said Don Cawby, city manager of Osawatomie, Kan.
Leading the charge in Osawatomie is Dan Macek, who runs an auto body shop but has all the pyrotechnics training and licensing necessary to shoot off fireworks.
“This is my baby,” he said. “I drive my wife nuts watching other firework displays on YouTube.”
With the city’s annual allocation of $5,000 — or a little more than a buck per resident — Macek orders the fireworks in February, when a St. Joseph outfit has its clearance sale.
He and several other locals who volunteer do so to bring everybody together at the lake. For the following several days they’ll get hardy slaps on their backs for providing 45 minutes of explosions.
And if this ritual would ever come to an end?
“I’d cry,” he said.
Gallup on Friday released a survey revealing that 52 percent of U.S. adults say they were “extremely proud” to be Americans.
It marked a new low in the 16 years that the pollster has asked the question. The peak was in 2003, when 70 percent said they were extremely proud.
The latest report said: “It is unclear to what extent, if any, the presidential campaign that now pits two controversial and widely unpopular nominees against each other could be a factor.”
On the upside, Americans continue to voice nearly unanimous pride at some level — if not extreme — in their country.
This year, on top of the extremely proud 52 percent, 29 percent told Gallup they were “very proud” and 13 percent were moderately proud. Add up all the pride and all but about 5 percent of Americans attest to having a decent measure of it.
Such overwhelming levels of pride and self-professed patriotism date back decades, reaching a crescendo after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We just feel more comfortable talking about our patriotism than do the people of Europe,” said Karlyn Bowman, who studies polls for the American Enterprise Institute.
Still, through most years, Americans expressed more doubts than satisfaction about the direction their nation was headed, said Gallup’s Frank Newport.
Since the late 1970s, clear majorities of adults have expressed satisfaction with the country’s direction during just a few periods: the mid to late 1980s, the late 1990s and after 9/11.
Otherwise, satisfaction has sunk to levels even worse than today’s. And often the sinking came during presidential election fights.
Gallup’s June report found that 29 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with “the way things are going in the United States.” Definitely not good, but before the 1980 presidential elections, it was down to 17 percent.
Around the 1992 elections, satisfaction fell to 11 percent. It dropped as low as 13 percent and 11 percent around the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
All of those years, high school bands marched in Fourth of July parades and communities gathered together in lawn chairs for the fireworks.
Independence Day activities “tend to dissolve partisanship” and require folks to step outside, said Carolyn Marvin, an Annenberg School for Communication professor and author of “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag.”
“It’s a very bodily holiday,” she observed. “And when bodies are in it, there’s nothing abstract. It’s real.
“Nobody wants to sit inside and celebrate the Fourth of July online.”
Marvin has thought about this a lot.
The Fourth, although rooted in revolutionary politics, is steeped in symbols of a community united, soldiering on despite eruptions (fireworks) all around, she said.
The parades feature wrinkled veterans of 20th century wars as well as uniformed youngsters born in the age of terror toting trombones and twirling batons.
“That’s a picture of a community always regenerating itself,” Marvin said. “Its past is on display. Its future is on display.
“And in these times it’s very reassuring that we’re all there doing this together.”
For DeWaun Harvey, 24, an Independence musical artist, the Fourth means remembering soldiers of wars past whose sacrifices would help extend freedoms to all Americans:
“The Fourth of July is that day when you put your differences aside, until the next day or whatever you want to do. That date is sacred.”
Independence Day owes its existence to the arguments of 1776. It’s never been free from divisions and discontent.
“What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” asked abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1841.
If this year’s holiday seems particularly tinged with political polarization, it might have more to do with the volume of partisan bickering on TV than with a nation hopelessly cleaved down the middle, suggested poll watcher Bowman of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Or could it be the polling itself?
Words such as “angry” and “afraid,” for example, are now routinely offered up in surveys that try to gauge the emotional extent of dissatisfaction.
“A word like ‘anger’ never was used in surveys between 1935 and 1980,” said Bowman, who is just beginning to research such questions. “In our personal lives we’re remarkably satisfied.”
Pollster Newport added: “It’s a known phenomenon that people are more negative with what they say about the larger society than about their own lives and neighborhoods.”
This holiday weekend, the 4,800 lives in Wamego, Kan., couldn’t be more united.
For 145 years straight, or so it’s believed, Wamego has thrown a July Fourth celebration to rival that of any in Kansas. This year’s festivities began Thursday, and come Monday, when a fireworks spectacular is planned, the crowds could surpass 50,000.
The travelers will park near the Wamego football field and middle school and shuttle in on seven buses. Most everything around the event is performed by local volunteers.
In 2015, so many tourists fueled up at the local convenience store, the pumps went dry.
Each year the townsfolk tell themselves, “We can’t keep growing,” said Kara Holle of the Wamego Chamber of Commerce. “Where are we going to keep putting all these cars? How are we going to handle all these people?
“Well, we’re just going to make it happen, make it happen, make it happen.”