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Seeking A Path Back To A Glorious Fourth As COVID Clouds Begin To Part

Fireworks burst over Washington Monument at the National Mall during Independence Day celebrations on July 4, 2020.
Jose Luis Magana
AFP via Getty Images
Fireworks burst over Washington Monument at the National Mall during Independence Day celebrations on July 4, 2020.

Most Americans can celebrate Independence Day this year with a new appreciation of what it means to be free.

Roughly half the nation has now been fully vaccinated and participation is higher among older, more vulnerable adults. The several vaccines are exceeding expectations for effectiveness, even against variants of the virus.

More and more of us are returning to at least a semblance of our prior lives.

Consider where we were one year ago. The last time July 4 arrived it was hard to find much to celebrate.

Much of the nation's urban population was in varying degrees of lockdown. The number of newly reported cases spiked to a new daily record in the week before the holiday.

People were dying by the hundreds every day. Soon it would be thousands, reaching a peak of more than 4,000 early in January.

Fears of the disease itself competed with fears for our livelihoods. An economy slammed by closures in the first weeks of the pandemic had struggled upward briefly in the late spring of 2020 only to slide back in the summer. Nearly 33 million Americans were receiving jobless benefits.

Although the Trump administration crucially gave a green light to the rapid development of vaccines, most experts doubted they could do much good within that calendar year.

More generally, the White House was setting a tone of denial and emphasizing public relations over public health. Frustrated in his effort to stage a parade and a traditional celebration on the National Mall in Washington, President Trump flew to South Dakota to hold a campaign rally defying mask mandates and social distancing beneath Mount Rushmore.

That was then

Much has changed in the past 12 months. Some of our fears about the disease and its damage have subsided. The economy has regained confidence. New unemployment claims are back down to pre-pandemic levels. The Department of Labor report just released for June showed 850,000 more jobs, with wages rising and small businesses, in particular, paying their workers more.

We arestill adding to the 600,000 deaths from COVID-19 that have already occurred in this country, but at a rate far below what we saw last winter.

Those who have been infected and survived, and those who have been either fully or partially vaccinated, are moving about the world again with far fewer restrictions. Workplaces and playgrounds are reopening. More churches are back to in-person worship. Bars and restaurants are thriving, to the point that they find it hard to find staff.

We will not have a traditional July 4th blowout this year on the National Mall with parade and concert and half a million revelers pressed against each other. But we will have fireworks, according to the National Park Service.

Forever associated with the holiday and the national anthem ("rockets red glare" and all that), fireworks will also light up faces in other communities large and small, from coast to coast. It will be a moment to envision the return of the rest of the customs we love, almost within reach again.

So, the hopeful version of the message of the moment is that in various ways we are finding our way — maybe even approaching the normal that we never imagined we could miss so much.

Yet even in this welcome moment, one wonders if the Fourth, like so much of our shared national life, will ever be quite the same. Our enjoyment of it, real as it is, can never be as simple.

For even on this day for national unity, we are keenly aware of our national division. Perhaps it is appropriate that the Park Service announces this year's fireworks will be fired from "both sides of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool."

Because by many measures, Americans are as divided now as at any time since Mr. Lincoln "saved the Union" in the Civil War.

Taking much for granted

Independence Day has long been a holiday with a message that millions took for granted. It was celebrating the heroic way the American colonists broke away from the English crown. But it was also a celebration of all we had accomplished since and what we liked about our self-image. We could tell ourselves a familiar and satisfying story about being the greatest country in the world — the richest and freest, yet the most principled and welcoming.

We have often had to confront the degree to which we fall short of this image. Yet on the Fourth of July, even bespectacled scholars and gimlet-eyed critics of our history have tended to slip on rose-colored lenses of forgiveness. Patriotic sentiment has been the order of the day, on this day more than any other.

Consider the countless Fourth of July events in grassy parks where a speaker tells people on picnic blankets that "with all our faults" we in America are still "the greatest nation on Earth." Call it American Exceptionalism, call it plain old chauvinism, but it's as familiar and American as our proverbial apple pie.

Then-President Donald Trump arrives for Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, S.D., on July 3, 2020.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Then-President Donald Trump arrives for Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, S.D., on July 3, 2020.

The Trump era carried this to new extremes. Forget the part about the faults, Trump would scale new heights of hyperbole while hugging the flag (literally, on at least one occasion). Last year's holiday rally at Mount Rushmore was a case in point, with Trump pictured posing beneath the chiseled granite faces of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt.

But in the last year of Trump's term, we saw major events that shook that complacent notion of "America the Greatest" or threatened to upend it altogether.

We have seen a renewal of racial unrest touched off by the George Floyd case in Minneapolis and fueled by far too many others like it.

We have seen another kind of riot when angry Trump supporters broke into the Capitol and assaulted the process by which a lawful election was being acknowledged by Congress.

And while that process was restored and a peaceful transfer of power was once again achieved, it remains profoundly disturbing that there should have been such a close call.

Combat in Congress

In the new session of Congress, the close margins between the parties and the stark contrast between their agendas have kept both sides in a rolling boil of outrage over vastly different grievances.

Issues such as immigration and infrastructure, which once highlighted common ground and brought out the dealmakers in both parties, are now as likely to be fields of mortal combat.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, renewed five times with big bipartisan majorities as recently as 2006, is now a battleground that divides Congress along party lines — even as the Supreme Court continues to dismantle the original law and many state legislatures layer on new voting restrictions.

In a U.S. Capitol Historical Society webinar this week on the current relevance of the nation's founders, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis traced the current debate over voting rights to a fundamental issue at the time of the nation's founding.

The Founders could imagine a country without a king, an aristocracy or a ruling class, Ellis said, "but they could not imagine a biracial society or a multi-racial society."

That effort still faces challenges in our time, Ellis added.

"The Founders couldn't do it, but by the middle of the 20th century, the United States committed itself to becoming a biracial and now a multi-racial society. We now know, after the Trump presidency, that a much larger percentage of the white population [than we realized] does not want that to happen. There are more of them than we knew."

We are still far from completing the mission the Founders left us.

This realization, too, is still with us, even as we persist through this pandemic and reclaim our right to feel good on the Fourth of July.

Our hope is that the spirit in which we have reclaimed that right this past year can prevail in the work we still have to do.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.