“I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” So cautioned President Ronald Reagan, 30 years ago today, when he gave his Farewell Address to the nation.
Mr. President, you were right. A new generation of Americans doesn’t seem to fully appreciate America, her history and heroes, the promise of opportunity, the understanding of freedom, or the concepts of citizenship, shared responsibility, or the rule of law.
According to a recent report on the State of American Patriotism, 46 percent of young Americans (aged 14-37) disagree that “America is the greatest country in the world,” and 38 percent of the same cohort say they are not proud of America’s history.
Our last three presidents, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have been dismissed by opponents as illegitimate, increasing the political divide. In the case of President Trump, a hostile media has joined the chorus, driving trust in government to historic lows of 18 percent, according the Pew Research Center.
A recent Gallup poll shows that since President Trump took office, 16 percent of Americans overall, and 22 percent of Trump’s opponents, wish to permanently leave the United States. For these people, devotion to country is a zero-sum game – contingent upon whether or not their candidate wins.
While the press and political opposition hated Reagan, today he’s remembered affectionately by all and cited by historians as one of our best presidents. His popularity helped to create a resurgence of patriotism and a restoration of national morale that had plummeted during the Carter years and which helped him to be an effective leader. “I never won anything you didn’t win for me,” Reagan thanked his supporters.
In his last Oval Office address, Reagan advocated that each of us strive for an “informed patriotism” and we instill in our kids an “unambivalent appreciation of America” so they will better understand “what America … represents in the long history of the world.”
Ronald Reagan loved this country and her people. It would break his heart to know that in modern America, our past is being re-written for our school children or not taught at all; giants of history are removed from public square without debate or due process; national symbols are openly protested; and vulgarity is the mother tongue of political discourse. In today’s world, angry mobs would confront Reagan and Tip O’Neill during their after-work happy hours.
Reagan spoke from the Oval Office nearly three dozen times during his eight years as President to lead, mourn, and explain. He spoke regularly about his economic policies, the threat of communism, and his negotiations with Soviet leaders to reduce nuclear weapons.
His most memorable Oval Office addresses included those on October 27, 1983, when he mourned the loss of 241 Marines killed in Beirut and on January 28, 1986, when he delayed his scheduled State of the Union Address to speak about the seven astronauts who “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to explore the heavens but lost their lives in the space shuttle explosion.
While his Farewell Address is not as well-known as these, it may be his most important. For we now confront the very problems about which Reagan warned us – a decline of patriotism, a loss of national pride, less respect for America’s governing institutions, and a lack of unifying purpose.
On this topic, Charles Kesler, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College suggests we are in a “cold civil war” evidenced by the fact “that America is torn increasingly between two rival constitutions, two cultures, two ways of life.”
The reasons we find ourselves in this situation are many, but as Reagan pointed out, the entertainment and education industries bear much responsibility. Reagan remembered a time when “you could get a sense of patriotism from school.” Today, in Maryland, the Montgomery County school board is considering a proposal to allow students excused absences so they can participate in political protests. He recalled a time when “you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture,” but that was before professional athletes routinely disparaged the National Anthem.
The most recent (2014) National Assessment of Education Progress shows that only 18 percent of 8th grade students possess a basic knowledge of U.S. history and less than a quarter of students are proficient in civics. Knowing our past, having hope in our future, and understanding how our system of government works are some of the tools our students need if we are to keep America a Republic.
Tom Kilgannon is the President of Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides support to America’s military families and advocates for a strong national defense.