In those days before kids, I was fast asleep when the phone by my bed rang at about half past six in the morning. It was my father calling. Planes had flown into the World Trade Center. America was being attacked. I knocked on the door of my guest bedroom to awaken a visiting friend. Together, thousands of miles from New York and Washington, we experienced the day—the fall of one tower and then the other, the attack on the Pentagon, the confusion, the rumors, the terror—the way most Americans did: watching television in stunned silence. It’s not just that we all still remember where we were when we heard; it’s that at that very moment we knew we would always remember.
But even as it was already clear on September 11, 2001 that the attacks were a turning point in American history, no one could have foreseen the direction of that pivot. The terrorists struck an ascendant America that had seen a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. While so much was destroyed that day, our confidence was unshaken. Most Americans anticipated a long war in Afghanistan with many casualties, but were certain of victory.
In the days after 9/11, according to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive, two-thirds of Americans said they had prayed and a similar number admitted to having wept. Eighty percent told someone they loved them as a result of the attack, and 60 percent kept in closer touch with relatives. Seventy percent had sung “God Bless America” and 63 percent sang the national anthem. But by September 27, 2001, 60 percent of Americans believed life had returned to normal. Looking back after ten years, we were clearly wrong. September 11 ushered in a sorry, sad, low decade. Ten years later, we are a nation that has been humbled abroad and felled at home. In a Time poll conducted this summer, only 6 percent of Americans now believe the country has fully recovered from the attacks.
It is more than the tragedies of Iraq or the sorrows of economic stagnation that have beset America in the ten years since 2001. It is the widespread sense that we are no longer the young, brave nation that brushes off adversity and charges forward—the America that went from Sputnik to Apollo in 11 years and from “malaise” to “Morning in America” in five. It is the belief that we are a slower, older country—an America stuck in its ways, no longer able to tackle big challenges and make big changes. More than a hundred years ago, the transition into the Industrial Age saw the rise of the Progressives and a new approach to public action. But now America moves into an individualized economy while politicians still repeat the familiar arguments of a bygone era. The Great Depression brought about the New Deal and a transformation of government while the Great Recession has produced little more than tinkers to an ossified system. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, America mobilized its manpower and machinery to win a global war against fascism. We invaded North Africa and Normandy. Four years after the attack, Hitler lay dead and Tojo was in chains. The occupations and transitions to democracy of Germany and Japan began and would succeed. Ten years after 9/11, the case for victory is far more muddled—at best.
In a nondescript house on a leafy street in a medium-sized city in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden—surrounded by porn and Pepsis—met his long overdue end on May 1. With the news, cheering crowds poured into Times Square and gathered in front of the White House. It had the feeling of a victory celebration, a national relief after a decade of frustration. But, in many ways, it was the Arab Spring—as much as a Navy SEAL’s bullet—that closed the chapter on bin Laden. And it is the impulse that led to that Arab Spring—for all its contradictions and uncertainty—that provides the best hope for a regeneration of an optimistic, forward-looking American spirit at home and around the world.
The wave of protests that began when 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and lit a match not only toppled dictatorships—it swept away the false debate that undergirded much of the past decade. Whether they were the Facebook revolutionaries or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the young people in the streets seemed as committed to implicitly challenging the assumptions of others about them as they were to explicitly challenging the corrupt governments that ruled over them. The generation that had been bin Laden’s hope for bringing about an orthodox caliphate with global aspirations called instead for civil rights and individual liberties. While the despair of economic dead ends certainly weighed on these young people, American liberals who claimed that what the people of the Middle East demanded more than anything were jobs, not democracy, were proven wrong. (A 2011 poll of Arab youth indicated that 92 percent ranked “living in a democratic country” as very important compared to a still-high 76 percent who gave such a ranking to “being able to find a job.”) And in the region where the Bush Administration hoped that “regime change” brought about by American troops would lead to the spread of freedom, it was ordinary individuals—with an unspoken faith that they had inherent and inalienable rights—who changed their own countries’ courses. The call for regime change did sweep across the Middle East, but it was not a call for American military action. It was the repeated chant of Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam—“The people want to bring down the regime.”
It should have come as little surprise. For 40 years, American troops had checked a Communist expansion across the continent of Europe. But it was neither MX missiles nor grain embargoes that ended the Cold War. It wasn’t American tanks, but ordinary Berliners with hammers and garden tools that ultimately brought down the Berlin Wall. Those men and women knew that America has an important role to play in spreading democracy. It is the role that Vaclav Havel spoke of when he told a joint session of Congress just months after he went from dissident to president that the “Declaration of Independence, your Bill of Rights and your Constitution…inspire us all”; that Angela Merkel recalled when she told a joint session how, as a young girl in East Germany, she was “passionate about the American Dream”; and that Lech Walesa referred to when, six days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he began an address to that gathering with the words, “We the People.” They knew what the young people from Algeria to Yemen have been repeating: that America’s power to build democracy comes from the moral force of our ideals and not only our military might.
It is far too soon to see how the revolutions of the Arab Spring will end—and what sort of governments arise in their wake. The revolutions of 1989-91 gave us not only Havels but Putins and Nazarbayevs too. In China, the dictators who mowed down the young people who had dared quote Jefferson and built a mock Statue of Liberty eventually gave way to a new generation of dictators who opened markets even while shutting down the Internet and locking up dissidents. But the wave of democratization that has swept across the world from South Africa to South Korea over the past generation demonstrates the intrinsic need for men and women to control their own destiny.
Just as progressives like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. knew 50 years ago, the greatest aid Americans can provide those struggling for democracy around the world is the example of a renewed and vibrant democracy in the very birthplace of the modern idea. What we need is a “pro-democracy movement” for America itself. This would include not only the conventional calls for greater transparency and participation, for getting money out of politics and more citizens involved in it, but also an expanding of the definition of democracy for the twenty-first century.
This is a lost thread of progressive action. In 1914, 24-year-old Benjamin Parke De Witt wrote in his landmark The Progressive Movement that the disparate strands of Progressive thought could be woven together into three basic goals: extending the role of government, rooting out the power of privileged interests, and widening democracy. In recent years, progressives have focused on the first two of these goals—and all but ignored the last.
In doing so, we’ve turned our back on an important tradition. In the age of Jefferson and Jackson, Americans put the franchise in the hands of common farmers and landowners instead of simply the wealthy aristocratic landowners, and used political conventions to replace the old “King’s Caucus.” The original Progressives passed laws for the direct election of senators, the merit system for government jobs, the secret ballot, the initiative, the referendum, and women’s suffrage. The 1960s saw not only the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act, but political primaries that brought the nominating process out of the back rooms and into the voting booths, the final destruction of the old-time political machines, the one-person, one-vote rule, and the elimination of the poll tax.
The truth is that in neglecting the work of expanding democracy, we’ve made the other two goals much harder. But even if that were not the case, our indifference to the task of expanding the meaning and power of democracy in twenty-first-century America is a failure in and of itself. As Louis Brandeis said in his 1915 testimony before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, “It is absolutely essential in order that men may develop that they be properly fed and properly housed, and that they have proper opportunities of education and recreation. We cannot reach our goal without those things. But we may have all those things and have a nation of slaves.”
Technology has opened up the political process over the past decade, but government itself—save for marginal changes—has remained largely impervious to citizens’ voices. The past generation has witnessed a democratization of the workplace as more employers give their workers the freedom to make their own decisions on the job. We have witnessed democratization in the marketplace as consumers have more decisions to make and greater ability to shape what they buy. The challenge of the twenty-first century is to make political democracy come alive in the same manner. To make democracy what the philosopher John Dewey wanted it to be, not just a form of government but a “way of life.” To make democracy what it was meant to be, more than just ballots and elections every couple of years, but real self-rule.
A full debate over how to accomplish this task is missing from contemporary politics. We could look at a constitutional amendment to create nationwide initiatives that would break the back of special interests and insider conventional wisdom just as state-level ballot measures at their best have done. Allowing citizens the right to allocate a portion of their income taxes to the programs they believe are deserving, as advocated in these pages a few months ago [“Your Money, Your Choice,” Issue #20], would provide an incentive to make government work more efficiently and better fund parts of our government that are getting short shrift despite the preferences of the public at large. And if we reformed government to enable us to make more personalized decisions about which schools our children attend, which health plan we join, which means of saving for our retirement we choose, and which type of job training benefits we select, then democratic power, the power to rule, would be vested in our own hands.
In showing the world that our democracy can work and grow, we give aid and comfort to those struggling against despots in distant lands. According to the Port Authority, the 1,776-foot skyscraper that’s rising from the hallowed land of Lower Manhattan is to be called One World Trade Center and not the original Freedom Tower. No matter. The real response to those who attacked America ten Septembers ago is the regeneration and reimagination of the spirit of 1776 in our country, and with it the rejuvenation of democratic change the world over.
“You have thousands of problems of all kinds, as other countries do,” said Havel in that address 21 years ago. “But you have one great advantage: You have been approaching democracy uninterruptedly for more than 200 years.” That process of democratic growth has slowed, if not stalled. For our sake, for the world’s, we need to begin it again.