Thursday, the nation celebrated the events of July 4, 1776, the recognized date when the United States was born. Yet, as the fireworks lit the sky, the dinner table creaked with goodies and patriotic hearts soared, I began to wonder about the aftermath.
Specifically, how would the events of the nation’s birth translate into our time, when cable TV news and social media relentlessly churn through news events, both big and small.
A handy Library of Congress timeline explains that on July 5, John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, arranged to send copies of the Declaration of Independence to the New Jersey and Delaware legislatures. The first newspaper to print the document did so on the following day, July 6.
A letter from John Adams, a key figure in the Continental Congress, to his wife Abigail Adams, dated July 7, 1776, includes a discussion of how the British military would likely react to the colonists’ declaration. It includes a wish, “I hope that your Brother and mine too will go into the Service of their Country, at this critical Period of its Distress.”
The day after, someone got around to reading the Declaration of Independence aloud to the public.
A formal response from King George III, the monarch to whom the complaints of the Declaration were directed, did not arrive for another 15 weeks. By the way, the king wished that “the Troubles, which have so long distracted My Colonies in North America, were at an End; and that My unhappy People, recovered from their Delusion, had delivered themselves from the Oppression of their Leaders, and returned to their Duty.”
In other words, it’s time for those bloody Americans to snap out of it.
Good luck with that, your majesty.
The news cycle operated much slower, the time it took for a horse or a ship to travel from Point A to Point B.
Today, our rapid space has created a short attention-span theater. Take, for example, the reaction to the U.S. Senate passing immigration reform two weeks ago. The negotiating process among the bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Eight” was as slow and deliberate as Continental Congressmen drafting a letter telling the king to get lost. However, our Founders had a much quieter workspace and there was less buzzing about.
The sound of late-18th century punditry and partisanship was not as mobile. No Twitter and Facebook accounts pinged every thought across the world. No cable TV news operations constantly devoured each and every angle of the issue, not distinguishing between the trivial and the truly important. No deep-pocketed interest groups pestered the representatives to add special benefits into the Declaration of Independence.
The immigration reform bill that passed the Senate was practically old news before senators were done congratulating themselves on a successful effort. We’ve been told the issue is a non-starter in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a majority and where many of those Republicans are not on speaking terms with the Senate’s version of reform.
Already, partisans are looking ahead to the next election cycle and then the next one and the next one, sifting through all the possible outcomes and judging — always judging — which side is winning and which side is losing, as if our democracy and its course is nothing more than a football game.
In the hours after the Senate passed its version of the bill, The New York Times was already speculating about what it would do to the presidential hopes of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Gang of Eight who was elected in 2010 with broad Tea Party support.
“Before the Gang of Eight and the immigration debate, I think many conservatives as well as some establishment Republican folks saw Senator Rubio as a possible bridge candidate between the conservative Tea Party base of the GOP and more establishment GOP voters,” The Times quoted one conservative public relations executive as saying. “That position is on much shakier ground today because conservatives and the Tea Party see the immigration bill as a big-government piece of legislation resembling Obamacare.”
During Senate debate, Rubio was compelled to offer his defense to these charges. “Truthfully, it would have been far easier to just sit back, vote against any proposal and give speeches about how I would have done things differently,” he said. “This most certainly isn’t about gaining support for future office.”
Speaking on Fox News Sunday last weekend, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., an immigration reform supporter, predicted, “I think by the end of this year, the House will pass the Senate bill.”
The Republican response came on the same program from U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., “we’re not going to take [Schumer’s] advice.”
Late last month, the National Journal’s Fawn Johnson took a far look down the road. “When lawmakers return to the Capitol in September, they will be facing another financial crisis as they debate raising the country’s debt ceiling,” Johnson wrote.” The four- to six-week countdown toward extreme limitations on government payments to Social Security or military operations will do two things: It will suck all the life out of any deliberative legislative effort, immigration included, and it will polarize the political parties. It will be far from fertile ground for the biggest immigration overhaul in 30 years.”
None of this is to suggest these predictions are incorrect. Nor do we necessarily mind intensely scrutinizing politicians, an essential task of all journalists. However, I wonder if it might help matters if today’s politicians had a little more breathing room, the sort the Founding Fathers had in creating this nation.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.