July 7, 2021 Reading Time: 3 minutes

If you are reading this, congratulations on surviving the latest Independence Day festivities, which our society somewhat arbitrarily celebrates on 4 July. Independence Day 2026 will mark the nation’s 250th “birthday,” but Americans that day may not party like it’s 1999. 

What will America’s quarter millennial/semiquincentennial look like? I vaguely recall the nation’s celebration of its 200th birthday in 1976: lots of fireworks, “tall ships,” and bicentennial histories, some patriotic fluff and some serious stuff, and biographies, many hagiographic but others critical. (If you missed the party, check out these iconic photographs.)

In 1976, the country still bore the emotional and economic scars of multiple political assassinations (JFK, RFK, MLK), race riots/urban uprisings, long and unpopular “war,” police state violence, domestic terrorism, a pandemic, a crime wave, high inflation, high levels of political corruption, outrageous but ultimately popular government policy overreach, and global climate change.

America is pretty much in the same boat now, sans the assassinations and the tall ships. It survived then and will do it again, one might conclude. Ron DeSantis (Ronald Reagan), the collapse of the CCP (USSR), and artificial intelligence (Internet) will bring the return of primary budget surpluses and an ebullient stock market. White House interns beware!

There are major differences between then and now, though. In 1976, almost everyone linked the same event(s) to the traumatic generalizations listed above. Today, identification varies by ideology, with progressives and conservatives/classical liberals living in seemingly different worlds, ostensibly due to rampant dismisinfoganda

Table 1 summarizes:

Trauma1976 consensus view2026 progressive view2026 conservative/classical liberal view
Urban riotsRace riots” of the 1960s6 Jan. 2021 “armed insurrection” at the Capitol, not the “mostly peaceful protests” of 2020Summer 2020 putative George Floyd riots, not the mostly peaceful Capitol protest
Long and unpopular “war”Vietnam “conflict“War” on drugs“War” on terrorism
Police state violenceKent State shootingsPolice shootings of unarmed black menPolice force militarization
Domestic terrorismWeathermen; Black PanthersWhite supremacistsAntifa
Pandemic1968 Hong Kong fluCovid 2019-21Not quite sure what happened, but it was exaggerated.
Crime waveLaw and orderLeniency in the name of racial equityOut of control cities
High inflationGreat inflationInflation isn’t coming and doesn’t matter anywayThe looming hyperinflation
Political corruptionWatergateThe Trump Family Crime SyndicateThe Biden Family Crime Syndicate
Popular government policy overreachNixon’s New Economic PolicyTrump border controlsCovid lockdowns
Global climate changeCoolingWarming so fast we have to act by 2027 to avert irreversible disasterNo clear trend

Other differences can be discerned, too. In 1971, almost all Americans considered their country a superpower that would certainly exist in 1976, unless destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. In 2021, many Americans think they live in a “third world” country, at least in the sense of one not fully committed to a market economy, that may not exist as a single nation in 2026.

A decade ago, George Mason University sociologist Jack Goldstone and UConn evolutionary biologist Peter Turchin predicted massive unrest in the United States starting in 2020 and a civil war to follow soon after. Before fleeing to the hills or your favorite hidey hole, though, note that their model appears to have been based on unrealistic and hackneyed Marxist tropes and poor data. Most importantly, they confuse real wage stagnation with real compensation growth and overestimate wealth inequality

What remains unclear is what matters more, the reality or the rhetoric. I imagine the latter because while individuals know their present condition is basically good, they might come to believe due to persistent dismisinfoganda that most others are faring poorly, or fear that their own fortunes must likely soon reverse. It will be a travesty if this nation falls into another civil war because its leaders again fail to distinguish truth from lies and count paternalistic unfreedom as a blessing, instead of the bane, of liberty.

But the most important comparison isn’t between the state of the nation in 1976 and 2026, it is between America’s leaders today and those of the American founding.

In 1776, Henry Laurens wrote that “this is the time for evincing our professions and declarations of love of liberty and the righteous cause of America. Words are not necessary to influence those who are sincere, to fly to the banner of their country” [emphasis added]. By signing the Declaration of Independence, 56 leaders pledged their lives and sacred honor to their country, not to a government. They risked all for a just, if imperfect, cause.

Today, America’s putative leaders cower behind sovereign immunity, razor wire, and nuclear weapons (really Joe?!) to protect themselves and the government, not the country or its people. They care nothing about liberty and want to preserve America only to the extent necessary to extract rents from it. That has to change, and soon, or July 2026 will be no time to celebrate much of anything.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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