Today The Atlantic begins publishing the trio of stories that appear together on its October cover. Under the banner “Making America Again,” staff writers Adam Serwer and George Packer, along with the political philosopher Danielle Allen, consider the renewed and growing appetite for radical reform. Each grapples with the successes and failures of the American experiment, from the forging of the Constitution to Reconstruction to the New Deal to the civil-rights movement. Collectively their essays offer a reason for optimism, as they propose that the country use this moment of crisis to recognize its flaws, and build a more perfect union.
In “The New Reconstruction,” published today, Serwer argues that the best analogue to the current moment is America’s first and most consequential awakening—in 1868. He writes: “In the 1860s, the rise of a racist demagogue to the presidency, the valor of Black soldiers and workers, and the stories of outrages against the emancipated in the South stunned white northerners into writing the equality of man into the Constitution. The triumphs and failures of this anti-racist coalition led America to the present moment. It is now up to their successors to fulfill the promise of democracy, to make a more perfect union, to complete the work of Reconstruction.” Serwer traces how Andrew Johnson’s racism and the turmoil in the South reaffirmed the necessity of Black suffrage, and draws parallels to today: “Just as southern dispatches and congressional testimony about the outrages against the emancipated radicalized the white North with a recognition of how the horrors of racism shaped Black life in America, the proliferation of videos from cellphones and body cameras has provided a vivid picture of the casual and often fatal abuse of Black Americans by police.”
Now, Serwer writes, the United States has its best opportunity in 150 years to remake American society and belatedly fulfill its promise as a multiracial democracy. “In the aftermath of the coronavirus, the nation will have to be reconstructed. It will require a massive federal effort to keep Americans in their homes, provide them with employment, revive businesses that have not been able to function under pandemic conditions, protect workers’ health and safety, sustain cash-strapped state governments, and ultimately restore American prosperity. It will take an even greater effort to do so in a manner that does not simply reproduce existing inequalities. But the necessity of post-pandemic rebuilding also provides an opportunity for a truly sweeping New Reconstruction, one that could endeavor to resolve the unfinished work of the nation’s past Reconstructions.”
On Wednesday comes “Making America Again,” in which Packer argues that the country is on the cusp of an era of radical reform that will advance citizens’ rights, restore opportunity, and repair our broken democracy. Packer suggests that the present moment has parallels to three “plastic moments” of the past 100 years, when the United States underwent significant change: the Progressive Era, when rampant corruption and inequality led to political reforms and policy changes; the New Deal, which is best remembered for the sweeping economic changes that created employment opportunities for millions of Americans; and the protest movements of the 1960s, characterized by expanded civil rights and massive cultural changes. He argues that our collapse in this current moment is so complete that the field lies open: “We have one more chance—in Lincoln’s words, a ‘last best hope’—to bring our democracy back from the dead … We’ve made America before. Self-government still gives us the chance. Everything is in our hands.”
Allen’s “The Constitution Counted My Great-Great-Grandfather as Three-Fifths of a Free Person. Here’s Why I Love It Anyway.” will be published on Thursday. In the third cover story, Allen ruminates on why it’s necessary for politicians to choose preservation of the union over policy conflicts, and celebrates the ingenuity of the Constitution. She writes that she loves the Constitution “because it is the world’s greatest teaching document for one part of the story of freedom: the question of how free and equal citizens check and channel power both to protect themselves from domination by one another and to secure their mutual protection from external forces that might seek their domination.”
Read the first of these cover stories, “The New Reconstruction,” at The Atlantic today. Cover stories from the October issue will continue to publish at The Atlantic across the week.