We can’t predict if the United States will survive as a democratic republic until 2050. It’s barely one in 2022. But we can imagine what it would take to make it one. In fact, for the survival of millions of Americans and billions around the world, we must ensure it does.
To do so, we should boldly articulate a vision for the United States that we have only occasionally aspired to convey: that of a fully democratic, cosmopolitan republic that finally rejects white supremacy as an organizing American ideology. It should be one that values and strengthens deliberation as the chief instrument of decision-making. And it should emphasize that we have a shared fate—not only as Americans but as humans on a threatened planet. Anything less risks disaster, both slow and fast.
The United States has undergone several “constitutional moments,” as Yale Law professor Bruce Ackerman has defined them. These are moments that start as a crisis and end in resolution. The resolutions result from the forging and harnessing of competing public visions of the good. These moments of crisis sparked deep deliberation among those who were allowed to speak and be heard—mostly wealthy white men, of course. The three main deliberative moments in Ackerman’s schema were the ratification of the Constitution, Reconstruction, and the New Deal. Each of these generated a brand-new covenant among the people and between the people and the state. The twenty-first century, starting with Bush v. Gore and culminating in the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, has found us in another such constitutional moment.
We often misdiagnose our current malady as one of “polarization.” That’s wrong. We have one rogue, ethno-authoritarian party and one fairly stable and diverse party. It just looks like polarization when you map it red and blue or consider these parties to be equal in levels of mercenary commitment, which they overwhelmingly are not. In one sense, America has always been polarized, just not along partisan lines. It’s also been more polarized rather recently, as in 1919 or 1968.
Instead, we suffer from judicial tyranny fueled by white supremacy. One largely unaccountable branch of government has been captured by ideologues who have committed themselves to undermining the will of the electorate on matters ranging from women’s bodily autonomy to voting rights to the ability of the executive branch to carry out the policy directives of Congress by regulating commerce and industry.
Americans, lacking a natural sense of nationhood, have been bound through most of U.S. history by a loose collection of ideological commitments, including commitment to personal liberties, optimism about the future, and trust in military and corporate prowess to solve problems. But we should recognize that white supremacy has long been the glue that held much of America together. As historian Edmund S. Morgan described in his essential 1975 book, American Slavery, American Freedom, white identity unified white colonists in Virginia across class lines, defining the very idea of “freedom” as “not slavery,” or “not blackness.” Slaveholding elites in Virginia saw the dangers of potential class solidarity among Native workers, enslaved Africans, and white indentured laborers, so they constructed a pan-white political identity that defined whiteness as freedom and ensured that poor white people would have a stake in the racial hierarchy regardless of their lack of status and power. For poor whites, at least they would not be Black slaves. So for white Virginians (and soon white Americans in general), a struggle for freedom was a struggle to assert superiority or dominance over nonwhite people. That idea has changed its tenor, often expressed in whispers rather than whipcracks, but it has never lost its power.