WASHINGTON - The July 4 Independence Day holiday holds a special place in the hearts of Americans. Nationwide, citizens traditionally gather for picnics and fireworks to celebrate the country’s birth back in 1776 and reaffirm the vibrancy of U.S. democracy.
For one day at least, the nation comes together to catch its collective breath and reflect on the democratic ideals upon which it was founded.
In recent years, however, democracy has increasingly come under strain in a politically polarized country, where voices are often raised across the political spectrum and common ground is hard to find.
Protests in the streets
Those democratic ideals have turned to action in the streets in recent days, including immigration protests that drew thousands around the country.
It can also be seen in the coming battle to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
U.S. President Donald Trump is scheduled to announce his replacement for Kennedy on Monday, and activists in both political parties are gearing up for a Senate confirmation fight.
“People are rising up. Donald Trump is not king. No one makes it to the Supreme Court without going through the United States Senate,” said Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, at a rally in front of the high court last week.
Trump supporters have also been vocal of late, enthusiastically standing with a president who vowed to disrupt Washington and restore America’s greatness.
As often as he can, Trump touts the strong U.S. economy and tax cuts passed through Congress, due to Republican majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.
“We are bringing back our pride. We are bringing back our jobs. We are bringing back our wealth,” Trump told a White House gathering recently. “And for the citizens of this great land, we are bringing back our beautiful American dreams.”
Political differences have sharpened during Trump’s presidency and that includes scrutiny of the ongoing Russia probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Polls show most Americans support the investigation; but, an increasing number of Republicans, like Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, see it as divisive.
“Whatever you got, finish it the hell up, because this country is being torn apart,” Gowdy told Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during a House hearing last week.
Polls show concern
The strains in democracy are beginning to show up in public opinion polls. A recent bipartisan survey commissioned by the George W. Bush Institute, The University of Pennsylvania’s Biden Center and Freedom House found Americans increasingly concerned about the state of their democracy.
Fifty-five percent of those polled said democracy in the U.S. was “weak” at the current time. And eight in 10 said they were either “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the condition of U.S. democracy.
In addition, a new Quinnipiac University poll published Tuesday found that 91 percent of those surveyed believe that the lack of civility in politics is a major problem for the country, compared to just 7 percent who do not.
The political divisions are real and so, at times, is the fear of where it could all lead, according to American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman.
“People feel like they are being written out of America simply because of their political beliefs, their gender, their race, their religion, and really, we have not had that for quite some time in modern America,” Lichtman told VOA in a recent interview.
Analysts note that because of the intense loyalty and opposition that Trump generates, the president has come to symbolize the widening political divide, even though the polarized state of U.S. politics has been evolving for decades.
“Trump himself is very polarizing. The public is very polarized,” said Gallup pollster Frank Newport. “They are worried about government, worried about long-term economic strength and the change with artificial intelligence and everything that is going on. So his great economic success, on a relative basis, has not been translated into personal approval or overall satisfaction.”
WATCH: Strained Democracy
?Seeking common ground
Americans usually manage to set aside politics on the Fourth of July and celebrate democracy, but in recent decades that has become increasingly difficult, given the political change and tumult the country has experienced.
In the past 20 years, Americans have withstood a massive terrorist attack on the homeland, elected the first black president and then turned to a political novice with a conservative, nationalist agenda as his successor.
The polls show that many Americans are uneasy with the current state of political discourse. Many worry that the sharp political divisions displayed on an almost daily basis make it harder to come together and tackle some of the difficult issues that face the nation.
In short, American democracy, while still vibrant, is also under strain.