American Revolutionaries

Many July 4 celebrations include a ritual reading of the Declaration of Independence. And now as in the past, it’s important to be aware different Americans hear very different things in those hallowed words.

Gallup just published an Independence Day survey that registered high levels of patriotism across every age, party and ideological spectrum. But when asked if they think the signers of the Declaration of Independence would be “pleased or disappointed by how the United States has turned out,” an interesting gap appears: conservatives answer “disappointed” by a remarkable 83-15 margin; while liberals are much more balanced (41% say “pleased,” 54% “disappointed”).

Now given the lofty values expressed in the Declaration, it’s not surprising a majority of people across the spectrum don’t think America has lived up to its founding principles for one reason or another (and some may even realize the Founders’ own limitations might make them disappointed at good things which have transpired since 1776). And you might argue that belief in the downward trajectory of human events is inherent to conservatism.

But I suspect something else may be going on: the recent tendency of U.S. conservatives–particularly those who call themselves “constitutional conservatives”–to read a special meaning into the Declaration, and use it to import such principles as Judeo-Christian religion, “natural rights,” absolute private property rights, state sovereignty, fetal personhood, and a perpetual right to revolution against Big Government, into the Founders’ Design for America.

To be clear, the Declaration has always served as an inspiration to those who for one reason or another have found our constitutional system or democratic politics morally or functionally inadquate. But right now the Tea Folk are claiming the document as their own, so don’t be surprised if they evince a special, exclusive pride in its reading today. It’s what self-styled American revolutionaries do.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.