As the European Union faces an existential crisis, Americans enjoyed their most patriotic holiday with a long weekend, some fireworks, and a hotdog or twelve. Every year we’re told to put ourselves in the shoes (and wigs) of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.  This year, let’s remember the pool-goers and grill masters of decades past as we revisit Independence Day each decade from 1966-2006.

July 4, 1966 came as the Vietnam War continued to escalate, and with it the counterculture movement.  Teenagers and college kids may have been listening to the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” on cassette tapes or cutting-edge 8 track players.  In politics, Democrats ruled both the White House and Congress.  As American soldiers fought the nation’s battles in Vietnam, Civil Rights leaders led the battle for equality within our country’s borders.  Activist James Meredith was shot just a month earlier, and within the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power movement was just emerging.  Add the Space Race to the mix of national news, and you might imagine that there was no lack for topics of conversation at cookouts that year.

On America’s 200th birthday, in 1976, Gerald Ford was finishing his time in office and gearing up to run against Jimmy Carter.  He would bid farewell to the White House just months later.  In the ‘70s, the battle for equality shifted to focus on gender equality, and second-wave feminism arose.  Just days before Independence Day, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of women to have abortions without their spouse’s written consent.  As the Hippie Movement faded and the U.S. enjoyed a time of relative peace, bell-bottoms, pant suits, and platform shoes replaced the tie-dye shirts and super short skirts of the previous decade.  To celebrate the bicentennial, fans flocked to Shaffer Stadium and Tampa Stadium to hear the likes of Elton John, The Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac.

On July 4, 1986, a four-day celebration was well underway to mark the conclusion of a two-year restoration project on the Statue of Liberty.  In politics, senior administrators in the Reagan Administration were brokering arms deals with Iran in exchange for the release of US hostages.  The proceeds from this surreptitious deal would be used to fund Nicaragua’s Contra insurgents as they fought against their Marxist Sandinista government.  In just a few months, the press would catch wind of these dealings and coin them as the now-infamous Iran-Contra Affair.  On Independence Day in 1986, however, none of this was in the public eye.  Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Billy Ocean could be heard on Walkman personal stereos nationwide, and puffy shoulder pads were a common feature in both men’s and women’s suites.

On the Fourth of July in 1996, guests at cookouts may have been thinking twice about whether to grab a burger or just stick with the potato salad.   The British mad cow epidemic started in March, and as consumers’ fears grew, governments and beef producers made every effort to calm the public’s fears.  As fears of mad cow swept Europe, the Taliban had become a major force in Afghanistan.  As it took control of the majority of the country, the United Front battled for control of the northern regions.  In the U.S., while parents discussed current events, kids were likely enthralled with the all-new Nintendo 64.  The new gaming console started out with only two games.  Pilotwings 64 and Super Mario 64 were certainly at the forefront of most children’s minds on Independence Day, 1996.

Just hours after the space shuttle Discovery launched, fireworks filled the sky on July 4, 2006.  The political climate was drastically different from that of the prior decade.  In contrast to the previous Independence Day, the U.S. was now in two wars and suffered a deficit over twice as large as that of 1996.  The War on Terror was well underway, and the housing bubble was just getting ready to pop.  As the foundations of today’s politics began to take recognizable form, so too did technology.  As iPods assumed their dominance among mp3 players, the likes of Sean Paul, Shakira, and Natasha Bedingfield crowded the Top 100 billboards.   At pools and cookouts, “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter and Sean Paul’s “Temperature” were likely candidates for song requests.

As were Independence Days past, today is a day of fireworks and charcoal grills.  Although cookout conversation and poolside chatter rarely erupt into heated political debate, what issues will we recall when we reflect on this year in the future?  The news is filled with mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and clips of xenophobic political rallies, but perhaps these events need not define us.  Last month, as the nation faced the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, news was marked not with hatred but with solidarity.  The weeks following were characterized by an outpouring of support for victims and a unified voice against blaming Islam for the attack.  When we look back at this year in a decade, will it be defined by the hardships we face or by the responses we make?

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