The meaning of the American idea in 2019
The 45th president of the United States is uniquely unfit for office and poses a multifaceted threat to our country’s democratic institutions. Yet he might not represent the most severe challenge facing our country. The structural failures in our democratic system that allowed a grifter into the White House in the first place—this might be our gravest challenge. Or perhaps it is the tribalization of our politics, brought about by pathological levels of inequality, technological and demographic upheaval, and the tenacious persistence of racism. Or maybe it is that we as a people no longer seem to know who we are or what our common purpose is.
Last year, Cullen Murphy, our editor at large, and I began a conversation with Danielle Allen, the author of a matchless book on the meaning and promise of America, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, about the causes of this dispiriting moment. Allen, who is the James Bryant Conant University Professor and the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, told me that our system of self-governance has been in crisis for a long time, since well before the dark night of Trumpism. Disenfranchisement and self-disenfranchisement; the radically uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity; institutions so dysfunctional that it would be irrational for citizens to invest in them; the rise of the technocracy—all of these threaten to place the American experiment in permanent eclipse.