To renew something means to make it new, again. The “re” in the word tells us that something exists already, and it was once new. The “new” means that we are going to bring back that state of newness. But when we do, it will not be the same as it was, because it is now new in a different time and a different place and is shaped by all that has happened in between. Americans have renewed our democracy multiple times, steadily moving in the direction of universal suffrage, although not yet achieving it. Each renewal has made our democracy not only new, but better.
We need such a renewal today, but the task is gargantuan and frightening. It is so hard not to give in to hopelessness, anger, or despair. There is a way, however, and it starts with each of us.
The media and pollsters frame the divides riving the United States, above all, in political terms: red versus blue. We do not read about polarization per se, but about political polarization. The many other differences among us—religion, race, ethnicity, geography, class, and culture—are then marshalled as contributors to that divide.
White people in the South and West vote Republican. NASCAR Dads and Soccer Moms are different slices of the electorate, as are Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel counties. Indeed, it is telling that we talk about the electorate far more than the polity; we are sliced and diced as voters, not as citizens. Urbanites are Democrats; rural denizens are Republican. Black Americans and Hispanic Americans are presumed to vote Democratic, such that it is news when they do not. Evangelical Christians are presumed to be right-wing.
Yet overcoming our political divides requires stepping away from politics. Journalist Amanda Ripley spent years talking to experts on conflict resolution in many different settings. In her book High Conflict, she concludes that the single most important step we can take to begin to see one another not as political antagonists but as fellow human beings is to “complicate the narrative.”[i]
Complicating the narrative means telling multiple stories at once. It means seeing beyond political identity, realizing that a Democrat or Republican is also a mom or dad, a cancer survivor, a community volunteer, a sports fan, someone who grew up or vacationed in or moved to a state you have in common, a gardener, a mystery or science fiction lover, a hiker or biker. Tapping into any of these plural identities will add new filters to lenses that currently see only red or blue. Having identities in common makes it harder to demonize and caricature those evil, crazy folks on the other side of the political divide.
Finding something in common is the first step toward building trust, the sense or belief that the person you are talking to is who they seem to be or say they are, that they are being sincere and will not harm or take advantage of you if you open up in return. Taking additional steps, particularly in these fraught days of shifting language and social norms, requires a measure of psychological safety, the belief that “you won’t be punished if you make a mistake.”[ii]Only with this sense of safety will people open up and say what they really think in ways that others can hear them.
Moreover, to persuade, you have to be persuadable. As Adam Grant writes in Think Again, “Being reasonable literally means that we can be reasoned with, that we are open to evolving our views in light of logic and data.”[iii]The best debaters are those who look for and acknowledge common ground with their opponents and who ask questions designed to invite their opponents to rethink their positions rather than trying to batter down their defenses with counterarguments. A key technique is to ask: “what kind of evidence would change your mind?”
Tapping into multiple identities, laying the groundwork for trust, learning to listen, and thinking again—these are all specific techniques to tear down walls of distrust and demonization. Moving forward requires these and more. It requires a positive sum vision of what we can achieve together: a vision of abundance and flourishing for everyone.
Political strategist and public policy expert Heather McGhee opens her book The Sum of Us with the question: “Why can’t we have nice things?”[iv]The reader immediately thinks of a child in a poor family asking that question. But McGhee is asking it on behalf of the country. “The ‘we’ who can’t seem to have nice things,” she writes, “is Americans, all Americans.”[v]The nice things we can’t have include “adequately funded schools or reliable infrastructure, wages that keep workers out of poverty, or a public health system to handle pandemics.”[vi]
McGhee’s answer to her question is that the desire of white Americans to deny Black Americans nice things means that all Americans suffer. Her remedy is cross-racial solidarity: the recognition that “the sum of us can accomplish far more than just some of us.”[vii]When we overcome the divisions that set the economic rules in ways that benefit a small number of Americans over everyone else, we will achieve a “solidarity dividend,” positive sum gains on everything “from higher wages to cleaner air.”[viii]
I believe this country will never come together over the social and cultural issues that viciously divide us and that are so easily manipulated by politicians who seek power ahead of all principle: abortion, guns, structural racism, the causes of climate change. We can come together, however, in the service of common goals that will create the America we want to see by 2026, 2050, 2076, for our next quarter millennium. A country big enough to hold us all. A country that reflects and connects the world. A country that leaves no one behind and that lifts up those who are now on the margins or at the back of the line.
The anthropologist and activist David Graeber wrote: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently.”[ix]Graeber’s co-author, comparative archaeologist David Wengrow, adds: “To even begin this process, and however great the obstacles, we must allow ourselves to dream again, starting this time with the freedoms that made us human.”[x]
Wengrow is talking about the freedoms that many heretofore undiscovered human communities found in living together, successful communities that rejected the hierarchical, exploitative power structure for prince to peasant that so many of us assume is baked into human history. The many founders of America, from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, with so many more along the way, dreamed of a specific set of not only individual freedoms, but also communal obligations—to enable us to live in a society that is free, just, and equal.
Renewing American democracy to fulfill our professed ideals should begin with our own language as a country, the language that proclaims our values even as we often betray them. The Declaration of Independence, as amended by the Seneca Forum’s Declaration of Sentiments. The Pledge of Allegiance. The Gettysburg Address. The “I Have a Dream” Speech. And other texts by great Americans whose cultures have been oppressed or ignored.
All humans are created equal. All have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty and justice for all. A country of, by, and for the people. Our children shall be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. America’s task as a nation is to make these great words true, or at least truer, in the lived experience, day in and day out, of all Americans.
But how? To come down from the clouds and castles of words and dreams, we must turn again to what each of us can do, as individuals, workers, citizens, teachers, worshipers, scholars, athletes, hobbyists of every description, and leaders of many different types of organizations. We can use the approach of 2026 as a catalyst for change, on a massive scale.
Here’s how we can do it practically. Use 2026 as a lever for change on a massive scale. Engage groups of corporate leaders, faith leaders, artists, celebrities, media and entertainment companies, youth groups, mayors, local journalists, and as many civic groups as possible to take the 2026 challenge, setting stretch goals for the work they are already doing to make positive change or taking on new projects. These goals cannot be achieved, however, without also radically re-examining our past, as communities, organizations, cities, civic institutions, and government at every level. I am working with a group called US@250 that seeks to spur and help us do this work.
Major structural factors such as a broken electoral system that incentivizes increasingly extreme politics, technological change that has left many people behind, widening inequality that feeds the politics of resentment, and an unprecedented demographic shift from a white majority to a plurality nation are all contributing to the poisonous partisanship that is both dividing and paralyzing the country. In my view, the single most important change we could make to achieve a representative democracy that delivers results is to adopt ranked-choice voting with open primaries in every state. Many other structural political reforms that would improve the quality of representation and government—multi-member congressional districts, campaign finance laws, and bipartisan redistricting commissions—would also help.
Still, democracy begins with individuals who both desire and are able to govern themselves as members of a common polity. Many Americans question whether we actually are one polity, or whether it is worth being one if it means that one set of views cannot prevail decisively and permanently over the other. Democrats and many Independent voters fear that Donald Trump and many of his supporters openly prefer victory to the rule of law and the checks and balances designed to ensure that both parties play by the same rules and have an equal chance of alternating in power. Many Republicans fear that Democrats will make the country they love unrecognizable forever.
Thus, change must also begin at the individual level, by rehumanizing the “other,” however we might designate them. It can start with self-examination, reflection, and conversation. We can reach out to others—those who are like us and unlike us—with a set of five basic questions:
- What do you love about this country?
- What in our past are you most ashamed of?
- What in our past are you most proud of?
- What do you most want to see happen in our future?
- How would you go about making that change?
Agreement is not necessary but listening is. With an open mind and heart. With a belief in the power of the words of the greatest leaders among us, all of us, and a commitment to mean what we say.
[ii]Tjan, Anthony K., Carol A. Walker, and Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner. “High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Review, August 24, 2017. https://hbr.org./2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it.
[x]“Humanity Is Not Trapped in a Deadly Game with the Earth – There Are Ways out | David Wengrow.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, October 31, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/oct/31/man-not-trapped-in-deadly-game-with-earth-there-are-ways-out.