An Onerous and Opportune Moment
For young Americans who have recently graduated college or have begun to enter the labor force, it seems we could not have done so at a worse time. Even discounting the scourge of COVID-19, which has simultaneously handicapped our economy, highlighted existing socio-economic inequalities, and stoked partisan passions, what our young generation faces is a weary republic reliant on debts, resentment, and compromised political ideologies. Our current leaders seem disoriented and helpless to deal with global challenges like the rise of China and climate change. The American project, once known for innovative ideas and bold leadership, has resigned itself to accepting an imperfect world for what it is. It is as if, during a national and global crisis, we have lost our way.
Luckily, like many crises, this one is accompanied by a great opportunity. In the wake of terrible events there often follows a period of rebuilding, and those with the courage to act can realize great potential that otherwise could not have been channeled. The post-COVID United States will have this opportunity, and it is the young cohort of Americans who will have to rally together and lead the nation into a new, reshaped world.
Through mass mobilization of determined young Americans, our republic can be revitalized by striking a balance between the concepts of rights and responsibilities. In order to best COVID-19 and emerge from this crisis a stronger and more united nation, our generation must set in motion the birth of a new political order that will bring us closer to our nation’s ideological foundations while preparing us to face unprecedented challenges.
As the Framers debated how to govern our nascent nation, one of the most radical thinkers of his day was absent. Stationed in Paris at the time of the Constitutional Convention, Thomas Jefferson was far from the action, though he frequently wrote to those involved in the undertaking. Among his most interesting propositions was that the Constitution ought to be revisited and rewritten every 19 years to ensure that each generation be its own master. As he said, “the earth belongs always to the living generation.” Though there is much we remember Jefferson for, this thought failed to gain much traction. After all, our Constitution was crafted to ensure stability and, given the time and effort needed for its initial ratification, revisiting it so often would prove unmanageable. Constitutional changes are deliberately slow, making radical alterations to the surrounding political environment difficult to achieve.
Interestingly enough, when radical changes do occur, it often has little to do with drawn out debates that, through years of thoughtful deliberation, conclude with meaningful policy reforms. Instead of the constitutional transitions that Jefferson imagined, rapid shifts in our politics often derive from exogenous shocks that we have little control over. Pandemics, economic depressions, and major wars are more likely to catalyze drastic political change than any position paper. They touch the lives of millions, expose flaws in governance, force individuals to change their minds and refashion their daily lives, and their effects can last for generations. Through the collective action that society takes to mitigate these crises, new political dispensations are introduced and significantly alter the political landscape.
In The Once and Future Liberal (2017), Mark Lilla describes the last two American political ages , what he refers to as the Roosevelt and Reagan dispensations. The former came about due to the struggles of the Great Depression and World War Two, the latter because of the relative comfort and sense of victory brought by global hegemony and economic supremacy—although, the Reagan era was also accompanied by perceived economic and cultural crises of another sort.
The Roosevelt dispensation “was a political vision of what the country was and what it might become.” It focused both on the hardships Americans faced, and the victories they accomplished. Vivid imagery of dust bowl farmers: shirtless men laboring on large public works and soldiers and their spouses assisting the war effort flooded the country. While the individuals were admired, the larger narrative was that of America enduring and later prospering through collective challenges. The duties of a responsible citizen were very much on display, and there was pride to be taken in helping one’s fellow countrymen. The best and brightest youth saw value in and were drawn to service, and the republic and its people were better for it. For the first time in several generations, civic virtue was a major part of American life.
However, Lilla describes the mechanism by which all such political movements will eventually become “detached from social reality.” The Roosevelt dispensation concluded in part due to the failure of the Great Society to reach its lofty goals, the willingness for Liberals to prefer progress in the courts over legislation in Congress, for the failures in Vietnam, and for other factors that dimmed public trust in the state.
Lilla summarizes the demise of this dispensation well. “Liberals lost the habit of taking the temperature of public opinion, building consensus, and taking small steps,” but even more than that, they delegitimized the government as a tool that could be used virtuously to achieve greater goods. Out of touch with reality and having lost its way, the Roosevelt movement ceded legitimacy, and in doing so our republic began to promote the duty of the individual to society less and less. The Reagan political order, with its libertarian focus on the individual’s right to be unyieldingly self-interested, would flavor the political climate of the United States for the next four decades.
In terms of catalysts—of spurring change—the seeming failure of the Roosevelt dispensation fits right in with wars and pandemics. Its shortcomings became its pitfalls, and soon new voices with new ideas gained prominence in hope that they held the answers in a difficult time (and the 70s was a difficult time). Reagan rode a tide that had begun to churn years before his arrival in Washington, a tide defined by a creed which held the needs and desires of individuals to be given “near-absolute priority over those of society.” As our society transitioned to valuing the individual unit over the communal whole, the cost was a weakened civic republicanism which had historically tied each American to a common identity and destiny. Society turned inwards as loyalty was transferred from all Americans and America herself, to families and tight-knit communities. All of a sudden the greatest good was “getting yours” and simply wishing luck to others that they might “get theirs.”
As a result, American politics, the notion of duty, and civic republicanism all suffered immensely. The wealthy and powerful abdicated social responsibility while they financially prospered. The poor and powerless were left to fend for themselves, and told their failures were their own fault. The Roosevelt dispensation taught Americans how to care and sacrifice for those they had never and would never meet. We were citizens above all else and we owed something to one another. The Reagan dispensation helped Americans to forget this virtue, and taught Americans a new lesson: how to look out for you and yours, and assume all others will do the same.
It has been nearly 40 years since the Gipper took his first Oath of Office and, looking at our situation today, it is hard for our generation not to be frustrated by those that preceded us. Rampant individualism has burdened our generation with policy and moral dilemmas that will take time and ingenuity to address appropriately.
A rising GDP is accompanied by an unjust distribution of wealth; an already massive national debt continues to grow as giant corporations are bailed out and provided tax breaks; a nation that propounds its own exceptionalism fails to inculcate virtuous tendencies in its people and leaders. Attacks on government institutions have diminished the appeal of public service and civic duty, driving talented young Americans to seek their fame in business. Now, the engines of innovation have been severed from the state, making it impossible to practicably solve complex policy challenges.
The Roosevelt dispensation lost itself due to the wide scope of its ambitions, trying to accomplish more than it could handle. The Reagan dispensation has stayed true to itself and has brought us to the logical conclusion of a political order focused entirely on the individual at the expense of society. Each generation now lives for itself, without much thought for those that follow. The challenges our preceding generations failed to address will make it exceedingly difficult for the living generation to feel that the earth belongs to them, to the great dismay of Jefferson.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly been a curse upon our land. As of this writing, it has taken the lives of over 110,000 Americans. It has brought about a recession, and there is no indication of when the economy may reopen fully without a mass resurgence of cases. However, the crisis has provided an opportunity for our generation that may not come again. On issues ranging from a nationalized healthcare system, revamped labor laws, policing methods, and universal income, attitudes are shifting quickly.
For many Americans, the stories they had heard of but figured ‘can never happen to me’ are indeed happening to them. They have lost their jobs, healthcare, and loved ones, and face difficulties paying rent or putting food on the table. Nationwide protests and riots have roiled the status quo in major cities, and their messages have permeated suburban and rural areas. Many feel they are waking up to a reality they do not recognize and cannot abide by. Most Americans would agree that something has to change. We may not rewrite the constitution, but we certainly have the rare chance to create fundamental change in governance and revive the civic republicanism vibrant nearly a century ago.
The COVID dispensation must be less like Reagan’s and more like Roosevelt’s, which means it must encourage a shared destiny for all. With so much turmoil and uncertainty in the world, Americans must learn once again to band together and look out for one another. Enacting universal healthcare and a variation of a universal basic income would represent a good first change in public policy, but America’s greatest need is civic revitalization. Inklings of this revolution have been on display: the majority of us have agreed to put our lives and desires on hold to keep others safe. Self-sacrifice for a common good ,in defense of those who are most vulnerable is the proper dispensation.
Young Americans today who feel the anguish of maturing during this confusing era have to be willing to step forward and grab the torch. Our nation can embrace a new political dispensation only if young Americans find a renewed virtue in service and duty to each other. Service can take many forms, whether through the government by joining the military, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, or local government, or through activism and community engagement,
There is a great amount of work ahead of us, and even when we have moved beyond this crisis, difficulties await us. We will have to earn our place in history. Yet, I do not fear this. Some of the finest minds and people I have met and worked with have been my own age, fellow members of the COVID generation. We have endured two depressions, lengthy wars, the first effects of climate change, domestic upheavals, and now a pandemic. Our fortitude is already worthy of praise. And while we know more will be demanded of us, we will answer the call. This time in which we find ourselves is dark, but there is great hope for the republic and for us. A new political dispensation is on the horizon and it will be we who usher it in.
Featured Image: History of San Francisco mural "The Waterfront" by Anton Refregier and commissioned by the Works Project Administration. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons.