Heading into July 4th weekend as a contentious general election season gets underway and a string of high-profile, split Supreme Court decisions dominate headlines, there’s a story being told about the United States right now: that it’s a country more polarized than ever, perhaps dangerously so. This is true, and an important dynamic for policymakers to grapple with. But there’s also a risk that this narrative becomes entrenched: that the story of the United States’ national political character becomes one of extreme polarization and discord, at the expense of narratives of common purpose, community, or other themes that might light paths out of the polarized moment.

Over the past few years—and even before then—many of the United States’ national myths have been reconsidered. This includes both narratives about American past and present that exclude Indigenous, Black, and other people of color, and women and sexual minorities, but also stories Americans tell ourselves about the stability of the global order, the inevitability of the peaceful transition of domestic power, and the resilience of democratic institutions. The decline of shared national narratives has also coincided with the rise of a more fractured media landscape, each consumer atomized by their own personalized algorithm. It now often feels difficult to pinpoint what stories—apart from those of despair, such as the narrative of ever-deepening political polarization—might take their place.

And yet shared national narratives are crucial to national security: both at the social and existential level, in reinforcing cohesion across a large country where belief in shared values can provide social glue; and at the more specific, policy level, as stories we tell about issues like climate, policing, or counter-terrorism inform what the public thinks of as a problem and how policymakers conceptualize solutions. Ceding the national narrative to stories of divisiveness and despair, and the public square to be dominated by those who can tolerate and perhaps even thrive on a certain kind of ugliness, does little to help Americans conceive of how shared stories might help us strive toward the common purpose of a more perfect union.

To that end, we’ve asked members of the Just Security community to recommend books, movies, or other media for this holiday weekend—with a focus on stories that illuminate common threads between people in the United States or help to articulate new or renewed visions for America’s future.

Many thanks to Monica Bell, Kate Brannen, Tess Bridgeman, Eugene Fidell, Bishop Garrison, Rebecca Ingber, Jameel Jaffer, Barbara McQuade, Maya Nir, Stephen Pomper, Laura Rozen, Matiangai Sirleaf, and others for recommendations included here.

Books, Poems & Short Stories

Movies, Television & Plays


Other Media

IMAGE: Fireworks explode over the National Mall in Washington, DC. (Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)