Updated at 1:24 p.m. ET on June 9, 2020.
This is an extraordinarily tense moment in the United States. Currently on display are police brutality, racism, a president fanning the flames and threatening to use force against peaceful protesters, and a Defense Department leadership initially complicit in using the military for partisan purposes—during a pandemic, no less. Authoritarian states jeer at us, and friends pity us. The head of the venerable Council on Foreign Relations considers the U.S. a “power in retreat.” Some American commentators compare the protests to uprisings against Middle East dictators, because in both cases, protesters believe that, as the writer Steven A. Cook has put it, “political institutions of the state and the prevailing social orders had combined to rob them of their dignity.” American diplomats are evidently struggling to justify our country as a functioning democracy.
Here’s how to do so: by recognizing that we are now seeing America becoming better than it was. This churning, disputatious, and even sometimes violent dynamic is what social change in America looks like. And what it has always looked like.
As the former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky once wrote, “American culture as I have experienced it seems so much in process, so brilliantly and sometimes brutally in motion, that standard models for it fail to apply.” This is what the American public is witnessing. Yes, recent events do bear similarities to when exasperated people in Tunisia and Egypt lashed out at their governments. And it’s scary to be part of. Our politicians are no less venal than politicians elsewhere. But what is different from the sorrowfully unsuccessful efforts to change government behavior elsewhere is the distributed system of political power in these United States, the vibrancy of a civil society that knows its rights, and the willingness of so many Americans to acknowledge the nation’s failings and take responsibility for improving society.