It’s July 4th, 2020. Any other year I would be brimming with patriotism and a sort of unbridled American righteousness. I acknowledge my country’s flaws, but on this holiday I am usually quite content to look past them into an idealist future where pros have remedied cons with ease. But this year it feels different — I see America clearly. Sure, the physical effects of quarantine and sickness have dampened the festivities, but more than that I feel an undercurrent of unrest wherein celebration has been replaced by widespread angst.

America has been on a slow march towards chaos the last several years. Each passing scandal brings us closer to constitutional/existential/moral/choose-your crisis. Initially, it seemed as if the divisive rhetoric emerging from dark corners was more akin to silt, a top layer. Our institutions, while under assault, seemed up to the challenge despite the strain placed upon them by multifaceted abuse of power and political dissent. But today, after 150k coronavirus deaths, vicious reminders of systemic racism and corruption of office so frequent it now seems commonplace, I’m less confident that our country can avoid irreparable damage in some form. In fact, with each passing month it seems more like an eventuality than a distant possibility.

There are two paradigms through which to examine the slow-motion disaster unfolding across the US. Pessimistically, this is the America we have always had. Her ugly warts have been hidden beneath success and prosperity — the idealist dogma written by a privileged few. Now, the undercurrents long subdued beneath a veneer are mainstream discourse. The quiet parts are being said out loud. We are coming apart at the seams because one catalyst has laid bare our true shortcomings too egregiously to be ignored. On the other hand, an optimist might see this turmoil as an opportunity to make lasting progress. An opportunity to refine America by leveraging our founding principles in pursuit of a more perfect union. The chaos of this presidency, while tumultuous, brings with it a cleansing fire. In this cauterizing moment, we must generate the momentum required to renew our republic, reclaiming it from the brink and launching forward into equitable progress.

The accurate perspective is certainly a mix of these viewpoints. America is a singular nation founded uniquely on principles of freedom, equality and individualism. But that freedom hasn’t been for everyone. That equality remains elusive for far too many citizens. Individualism is celebrated within limits. Our institutions are relatively strong amongst democracies, but they are hollowed and faltering. Far too often they are swayed by money and political influence, failing to champion the principles upon which they were founded to defend. More than anything, America represents what we should be, not what we are. This country’s aspirations should outpace our realization of them, but not by this much.

I have lamented the current state of affairs long enough that I’m weary of doing so, but I’ve always retained the belief that we can pull back from the precipice. Upon reflection this melancholy 4th, I’m less sure than I’ve ever been.