Conservatives particularly love those holidays that they view as the best opportunities to display their patriotism. On the Fourth of July, they will predictably be among the loudest to cheer on the symbols of the day — the waving flags, the fireworks, the parades — as a show of their devotion to America.
But what is it that they are cheering on this year? Which America is the subject of their admiration, the inspiration for their barbecues and red-white-and-blue—decorated homes?
As many of them would describe it, they are celebrating the America that freed itself from British rule in the late 18th century, the America whose birth as a nation was the origin of Independence Day observances ever since, the America that has fought wars for freedom all over the world for the last century and is currently entrenched in a war on terror in the Middle East.
There is a contradiction here, however. If we are going to look at the meaning of the American Revolution in its purest, most admirable sense, what we are considering is a group of colonies that fought a war against empire and for local governance, a group of colonies seceding from a central state and its oppressive taxing, spying, regulating and attacks on due process. The America that was embodied in the struggle for independence against Great Britain, while imperfect, was fighting for self-determination and independence from the grand empire of the world. The America that exists today, on the other hand, is the grand empire of the world — in fact, the most powerful and expansive empire in world history.
The Bush administration has continued all the tyrannical policies of the Clinton administration and so many of those before it — socialist health care policies, nationalist education policies, Social Security, income taxation, the War on Drugs, gun control, maintaining military bases and foreign aid throughout the world, and central banking. Any one of these represents an attack on liberty that matches or far exceeds the typical egregious measure of which King George was guilty.
In addition, the Bush administration has propelled America into a nightmarish foreign and domestic war on terror. On the foreign front, Bush has rained destruction on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and led thousands of Americans to a premature death. He has propped up brutal puppet regimes in the Middle East, imposed an imperial occupation in Iraq, and conducted a military counterinsurgency campaign all so he could fulfill his advisors’ crazed plans for reshaping the Middle East to the presumed benefit of foreign interests, religious zealots at home and abroad, and corporate profits.
On the domestic front, Bush has obliterated the Fourth Amendment with his assertions of the power to limitlessly spy on the American people in their homes and telecommunications without anything resembling true judicial due process or Congressional oversight. Even more outrageously, he has killed Habeas Corpus at home and in his faraway dungeons, where terror suspects have been detained indefinitely without trial or hearing. The whole while, the current administration has draped over its actions one of the most frightening shrouds of secrecy ever to obscure government activity in US history.
Outside the war on terror, the administration has accelerated the nationalization and corporatization of the American economy, launched the largest expansion of the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson, exploded federal spending, and sent its officers into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to enforce martial law and confiscate weapons from peaceful Americans.
And yet this is the America that so many Americans will celebrate on the Fourth of July. Not only has it become a parody of what the American Revolution promised it could become — that is, a nation born in a struggle against empire that widened the sphere of liberty continuously until it became a free country for all. Not only has the America of the Founding Fathers been abandoned. What we see today is a terrifying empire at times much more oppressive and belligerent than that regime against which the colonies rebelled. At least compared to what average Americans have to endure under George Bush II, what they had to suffer under King George III now seems trivial.
So how do we explain this extreme disconnect? Are Americans, especially conservatives, conscious of the great chasm between the anti-imperial America symbolized by Independence Day and the imperial America we have today?
The best possible explanation is nationalism. What most rightwingers celebrate on the modern Fourth of July is simply the nation-state of America, which was in a way born as soon as independence was gained from Britain, although not truly molded into a cohesive regime until the Constitution’s ratification, and made much more of a nationalist state and expansive empire with each of the big wars — especially the Mexican War, Lincoln’s War, the Spanish-American War, the World Wars, and the Cold War.
Approached in this way, we can perhaps grasp the new nationalist understanding of the Fourth of July: In 1776, the American people revolted against the British Empire, thus enabling the development of their own empire, which would far exceed the relatively meager global power obtained by the British state.
And so the American nationalists will have their fireworks and sing songs about conquering other peoples. They will pray for the success of the newest imperial project even as they give lip service to the concepts of independence and freedom. They will be glad that Bush is doing all he can to protect their security, for which they have gladly traded their liberty, and the liberty of others. They will see no irony in it because for them the American Revolution is not about an imperfect life of liberty outside the state; it’s rather about the stability and confidence that come with living under the most powerful government in the world, one that can wage war on any other country without anyone’s permission, one that can hold the entire planet hostage with its awesome nuclear arsenal.
One problem with this mindset is it is dependent on the unreliable. Empires fall. The American empire will not always have the credit and global power it now has. It is in fact losing them with each day. It is thus much better on the Fourth to celebrate liberty, the idea of independence from the state, and hope and work for its rebirth, rather than be among those celebrating such a transient cause as the American nation-state with its current surplus of power and deficits in liberty and reason. If you celebrate that America, your cause may one day prove as lost as that of the few Brits who wish America had stuck it out under the yoke of England.