It is read selectively, of course. The Tea Party folks and more extreme actors out there use key clauses to justify themselves, especially: "-That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government."
They, of course, forget the next lines: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."
While we live in a time where institutions seem so frozen that government cannot operate, with the threat of filibusters and now divided government, the reality is that changes to the existing order can still be made within the system. If the Democrats had the courage of their convictions, they could have overcome the filibuster threats. When they did act, things did happen--a compromised health care bill. The debt crisis we now face is something that can be managed, but there are games to be played still.
This Independence Day I ponder not the sacrifices made by soldiers on battlefields around the world (Memorial Day and Veteran's Day foster such reflections) but rather the state of the union and what it means to be an American. Are we over-consumed with decline? Can we bounce back from the current situation? What has happened to the American dream?
I don't think the US will ever return to its dominance of the planet in the 1950's and 1960's for the simple reason that we will not have another war that decimates all of the other great powers while leaving the US barely touched. Iraq did heaps of damage to American leadership not just through over-extension but also through a loss in legitimacy. It is one thing to go it alone essentially, and another to go alone based on lies. I remember being asked by the Montreal media in early 2003: what if there are no WMD's in Iraq? And I remember being stymied by the question. I didn't think WMD programs justified the war, but I had expected something, anything, to get turned up. But no, the intel was pre-cooked, and then the country that could go to the moon proved that it could do everything wrong in a post-war phase that just created more war.
Still, the Libyan effort shows that American leadership is still necessary. Yes, Obama now has US forces playing a supporting role, but it took the US to get NATO to agree to the effort, and it continues to take US assets to make the effort sustainable--refueling, intel, reconnaissance, etc. I don't think too many folks are looking forward to Chinese leadership, not even the Chinese. So, yes, the US is declining relatively, but it still possesses a fuller portfolio of power than anyone else: conventional power projection, nuclear weapons, a large albeit semi-broken economy, a large population, an appealing set of ideas (back to that Declaration and Constitution), and so on. While some datasets have China having more power than the US because of the role of population in the calculation, we need to remember that power is relational. To get others to do what they would otherwise not do. While China is good at gobbling up resources around the world, the US still manages to get others to do stuff they would otherwise not do, like fly over Libya or contribute to Afghanistan.
I will ponder the state of the union and the American dream some other time as this post is getting long and I have some work to do on this non-Canadian holiday. To preview, I still think that Americans, even in this relatively dark time in our history, are dreamers and innovators. If we can recover from the Civil War and from the combination of Vietnam and Watergate, I think we can bounce back from the financial crisis and from the Bush Administration.