In his study of 19th-century American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville explained his mission this way: “I undertook to see, not differently, but further than the parties; and while they are occupied with the next day, I wanted to ponder the future.” Nearly two centuries later, all of us — Republican, Democrat, Trump supporter, Trump critic — should be able to agree that some future-pondering about the state of our democracy is in order.
In so many ways, the underlying conditions of U.S. democracy need repair. Among American citizens, ideological and philosophical divisions seem insurmountably sharp; among their representatives in Washington, compromise appears impossible. Whatever side you were on in last year’s election, it’s clear that the campaign brought these problems dramatically to the surface of our national life; it’s also clear that these challenges would have been with us, in equal measure, no matter who won.
And so, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the election, we asked dozens of writers and artists to look beyond the day-to-day upheavals of the news cycle and propose one idea that could help fix the long-term problems bedeviling American democracy. The result: 38 conservative, liberal, practical, creative, broad, specific, technocratic, provocative solutions for an unsettled country. — Richard Just
REQUIRE EVERYONE TO VOTE
Isenberg is the T. Harry Williams professor of history at Louisiana State University and the author of the New York Times bestseller “White Trash.” Burstein is the Charles P. Manship professor of history at LSU and the author of nine books. They are co-authors of “Madison and Jefferson.”
A long-standing defect in U.S. suffrage law is the treatment of the electoral franchise as a privilege that is denied too easily and often because of an ugly prejudice or a convenient pretext. Let’s reimagine the democratic right of voting as a citizen’s obligation. In our doppelganger ally down under, Australia, voting is compulsory. They have far higher turnouts, and their elections boast greater legitimacy.
We can and should make it much easier to carry out this civic duty: Keep polls open for an entire week, not a single day, and make sure that polling places are easily available — distributed across states according to population density. In addition, let’s expand mail-in voting (which is how citizens who serve in the military routinely vote). Public transportation to the polls should be free. A national registry of voters can be created if hospitals automatically submit birth certificates; this way, voters could be identified by their Social Security number, and arbitrary state requirements could not be used to unfairly penalize them. Anyone who fails to cast a ballot would be subject to a fine, the funds from which could be used to support the costs incurred by this compulsory program.
Instead of permitting voter suppression, which stands out as a blemish on our less-than-fully-democratic system, we should be defining the voter as a national citizen. In reversing the emphasis from suspicion of fraud to across-the-board inclusion, we would come closer to being a “representative democracy” — what we’ve always claimed we are. And at least we’ll be able to say with greater authority that candidates look foolish (or bigoted) when they refuse to consider the interests of the entire body of citizens.
A NEW HIGH SCHOOL COURSE: IDENTITY 101
Jen is the author, most recently, of “The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap.”
Race, class, gender. These lenses on society have proved revelatory, and no one would ever deny their importance. And yet to this holy trinity, I would like to add a fourth lens: culture.
Cultural difference has riven our culture. We are aware that there are cultural divides. We are aware that we have trouble talking across these divides. We are aware that there seems to be no convincing some people of their essential wrongness and our essential rightness. We are aware that some part of the problem is unrelated to our objective interests — that some part of the problem is a matter of how we just think things should be. We are aware that some of us do not see the same things at all. We are aware that we can bug others as much as they bug us. And yet the nature of culture itself — of what drives these differences, of what drives our ideals and focus and irritation — is poorly understood.
In the interest of a more functional nation, then, I propose a new high school requirement. Every student should be required to take, not a course in foreign culture — not a course in Italian food, or Japanese gardens, or Central American weaving — but a course on the nature of culture: on meta-culture. We could call it Identity 101. What part of identity is culture? Where does our culture come from? How has it helped us? Do we have selves independent of culture? Does anyone? How can we know what our culture is? Is that culture immutable? And if it changes, how does it change? It goes without saying that an understanding of what exactly culture is will help us deal with the rest of the globe, but its value begins at home. To understand the nature of culture will not solve our problems. But understanding that we all have scripts — to which we may or may not adhere but which are ours nonetheless — might at least help us begin to see ourselves as the actors that we are, and to speak to other actors in a new way.
ONE MONTH WITHOUT SOCIAL MEDIA
Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs magazine.
Life in a free society requires us to hone habits of accommodation, but today Americans seem to be losing the knack for living together. Recovering our worn civic spirit would require some major institutional reforms — political, economic, civic and social. No one step can get us there.
But if we seek one simple thing to do for a start, maybe we could make ourselves more receptive to the music of accommodation, particularly by abstaining from the blare of vain and vicious animosity. If only as a marker of our desire to do this, we should each commit to staying away from social media for a month this coming year.
The boundaries of social media can be blurry, but take 30 days away from any platform on which you express or display yourself online without mediation in return for being “liked,” “followed,” “friended” or “favorited.” A break will give you peace from the impulse to flaunt yourself to prove your virtue, a respite from constant incitement to smug anger and self-pitying resentment, and more time to live your life.
Social media aren’t all bad, of course. They let us keep up with loved ones, learn from each other and encounter people we would never meet. But they have turned out to have an anti-social dark side. They eat away our capacity for patient toleration, our decorum, our forbearance, our restraint. They leave us open to manipulation — by merchants, algorithms, even real-life Russian agents. They cause us to mistake expression for reflection, affirmation for respect, and reaction for responsibility. They grind down our democratic soul. We all see it in ourselves. So let’s take a break.
This won’t transform our society, but it’s not wholly separate from the need for institutional reform. Social media often act like informality machines, corroding the forms of our social life — that is, precisely our institutions. Taking a break from them won’t heal our divisions, but it might put us in a better frame of mind to try.
BEFRIEND A LIBERTARIAN
Mangu-Ward is editor in chief of Reason magazine.
Getting out of your partisan bubble is tough — and if the only person you know from the other side of the aisle is that one awful uncle who won’t stop posting garbage on Facebook, it can seem impossible.
For assistance in the vital task of bubble bursting, may I suggest locating a friendly neighborhood libertarian? Think of us as a gateway drug to transpartisan understanding.
On the left and finding that Trump fans turn your stomach? Consider chatting with someone who will give you a hearty amen when you grouse about his immigration restrictionism and warmongering over a craft cocktail or a joint, but can still offer some insight into why a sane person might think environmental regulatory rollback or Social Security privatization is a good idea.
On the right and struggling to figure out how you’d connect with a blue-haired Occupy Wall Streeter? Find a libertarian: We’ll grab some burgers and cigars. We can talk about repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes before easing into a conversation about why it might be time to seriously consider reforming our criminal justice system.
People who disagree with you about who should be president are almost certainly not evil. But that can be hard to see when everything is painted in stark ideological hues of red and blue — or when everyone you know and like shares your views. Finding someone who agrees with your politics about half the time can help expose the ways that our current political coalitions aren’t set in stone. And perhaps even offer hope for real compromise and dialogue in the future, instead of the usual shouting match.
TACKLE TOUGH SUBJECTS AT DINNER
Hische is a letterer, illustrator and type designer. Her clients include Wes Anderson, Dave Eggers, Penguin Books, American Express, Nike and the U.S. Postal Service.
OUTLAW PRIVATE EDUCATION
Patchett is the author of seven novels and three books of nonfiction. Her most recent novel is “Commonwealth.”
There’s a game I like to play called When I’m Emperor in which people go around the table and say the first thing they would implement if every decision in government were theirs alone to make. My answer is always the same: When I’m emperor I’ll abolish private education.
Think about it: Those giant Ivy League endowments surging into state schools; the best teachers and administrators available to raise the standards in classrooms; public schools sporting planetariums and swimming pools and science labs and libraries, not to mention buildings maintained like country clubs instead of housing projects — for the benefit of all children. Imagine the parents who, no longer able to ensure the futures of just their own child and those similar, would pour their considerable energy and resources into public education. The rising tide would lift all boats. There would be no other choice.
My dream for this country is opportunity and equality. Let those kids who’ve been the recipients of a glorious education from preschool to graduate school solve the rest of the world’s problems. With my plan they’d be equipped to do so.
And in case you’re wondering, I don’t have children, and I’m the product of 12 years of Catholic school and a private college. A straight line could be drawn from the privilege of my education to the success of my life. Every year I spent in school I was handed another key to open yet another door, while kids who were no less worthy had to pick the locks, all because my parents could pay tuition. There should be no inequity among the opportunities available to 5-year-olds. The health of our schools is the health of our nation.
IGNORE THE CULTURAL ELITE
Reno is the editor of First Things magazine.
An ill wind is blowing in America. Income inequality is the least of it. In 2015, according to economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, white men age 50 to 54 with high school degrees or less were four times as likely to die from suicide, drug overdose or alcohol-related disease as those with four-year college degrees or more. But you don’t need an economist to know this. Go to San Francisco. There you can see the super-successful with their discreet tattoos, casual clothes and vast wealth stepping over youths shooting up in BART stations and ragged battalions of homeless people waiting to die. Our post-’60s culture is like our post-’80s economy. It’s pretty good for the rich and powerful. It’s hell on the poor and weak.
The elites are to blame. A moral and spiritual revival might restore a consensus that encourages dignity and decency. But the “good” people like us who have been running things for the past 50 years lack any inclination to repent. On the contrary, we’re pretty darn proud of what we imagine we’ve accomplished. Today, our most realistic hope is an angry cultural populism to match the rising economic populism.
Who ruined marriage? Who normalized drug use? Who defended the rights of pornographers? Who celebrated transgression? Who is responsible for ruining the lives of so many? These questions are not very difficult to answer. Those responsible are not evangelical pastors in Texas.
A fish rots from the head down. Political correctness ring-fences the authority of the “good” people, deriding as “bigots” any who dare to challenge them. This is a perverse blame shifting, an evading of responsibility for our society’s ills, and it needs to end. The time has come to hound our cultural establishment from public life. I recommend starting with Harvard, the New Yorker and Silicon Valley CEOs.
MANDATE MILITARY OR CIVILIAN SERVICE
I propose we all go back to kindergarten and relearn how to cooperate and share our toys. The adult version is to spend time in compulsory service to our country. Because if we’re free to do whatever we want to do, we won’t have a country.
I’ve learned this lesson in the 19 years since my husband joined the Navy as a chaplain. During two deployments to Afghanistan and one to Iraq, plus years at sea, he has served alongside atheists who thought he was a fool to believe in a higher power and evangelicals who told him his salty language would land him in hell. But whenever someone needs to talk, whatever their religious or political persuasion, they trust him to keep their secrets, and he trusts them with his life. They’ve been forced to learn how to set aside differences and come together to support a mission; they’ve learned to sacrifice for each other and for something larger than themselves. I saw that dynamic among my fellow military spouses. It’s how we get through tough times. While flawed, the military has proved the benefits of setting aside differences, and not just in battle. It led the way on racial integration and has a medical system that provides the same excellent health care to everyone regardless of rank — healthy, injured or sick.
A democracy requires we the people to work together to solve our problems. If we can’t figure out how to do that on our own, then we should all be inducted into settings that will force us to learn. Military’s not your thing? Then let’s create an equivalent deployable civilian force and call up everyone from judges to journalists for all these post-conflict civil-society-building stability operations we keep dumping on our ill-equipped military and under-resourced State Department. Let’s beef up domestic programs like AmeriCorps. Three years full time or 10 years in the reserves, civilian or military, should do it, with options to serve later rather than sooner to get all levels of experience into the mix. As our democratic skills improve, we can thank ourselves for our service.
ALLOW GARAGE UNIT RENTALS
MacGillis is a reporter for ProPublica.
We have grown so far apart from each other partly because we live so far apart. Inequality is not just about where we stand on the income ladder, but where we live. The gap between the wealthiest cities and the rest has grown much larger than it used to be: In 1980, Washington’s per capita income was 29 percent above the average for all Americans; by 2013, it was 68 percent above. In New York City, the difference went from 80 percent above to 172 percent above. And the clustering of wealth is happening within communities, as well: The share of affluent families that live in upper-income neighborhoods, instead of mixed-income neighborhoods, has doubled since 1980.
Happily, there is a modest but concrete way to start addressing this problem: accessory dwelling units. That’s a fancy planner’s term to encompass two age-old forms of housing: the “granny flat” within a house that can serve as an independent living space, and the detached cottage or renovated garage that can serve the same function. ADUs are a way to discreetly scatter affordable housing throughout well-off neighborhoods, making it easier for, say, a single mom with a couple of kids to move from a struggling rural area to a thriving city, or to move from a low-performing school district to a better one.
Portland, Ore., has been leading the way on this issue, but other jurisdictions are catching on — including Washington, D.C., which last year dramatically loosened the regulations around ADUs. Others, however, are still lagging: Montgomery County, while taking steps to encourage ADUs, still requires more red tape than the District; Arlington County allows only granny flats, not detached units; and Fairfax County bars cottages on lots of less than two acres. “People come up with a lot of reasons for not having them,” says Eli Spevak, an ADU builder in Portland, “but the core reason is not to have the riffraff living in the neighborhood.”
Which is exactly what is so useful about ADUs. They’d help us reduce economic segregation and expand opportunity by bringing in the riffraff.
Glaser is a graphic designer whose work includes the “I❤NY” logo and the psychedelic Bob Dylan poster. He co-founded Push Pin Studios and received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2009.
I’ve been playing with the idea of how to detoxify Trump’s vicious attack on immigration and on a basic American value: the acceptance of immigrants in order to enrich the country. The term “dreamers” has become pejorative in Trump’s hands, but we must remember that dreaming is one of the best attributes of humankind.
A WOMEN-LED EVANGELICAL MOVEMENT
Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who covers religion and politics.
Forget tops with cutout shoulders — “Nevertheless She Preached” T-shirts were the hot item this year among the women in my social circles. The past 12 months have been especially hard on evangelical women. And at some point along the way, as the leaders of their churches remained mute about the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape or applauded President Trump’s refugee ban, the women snapped.
The 2016 election and its aftermath have shown just how many male evangelical leaders are either willing to swap their moral authority for a seat at the table (John Fea at Messiah College has coined the apt term “court evangelicals” to describe them) or silently abide everything the current president says and does.
This has deeply pained women who grew up being told that they needed to prize sexual purity above all else. Women whose work with refugee and immigrant communities is suddenly a political statement. Women who have been kept out of formal ministry because of their gender but have ministered nonetheless.
It’s time for a new evangelical movement led by women — not just for other women, but for the whole church. If white evangelicals are still the most loyal supporters of a president who brags about sexual assault, encourages white supremacists and uses Twitter to threaten nuclear annihilation, then there is a critical disconnect between the gospel and the preaching they’re hearing on Sundays.
American politics and civil society have long benefited from strong religious communities that preach truth to power. Social gospel Protestants pushed for labor laws, black pastors shamed presidents into supporting civil rights laws, Catholic priests battled nuclear proliferation from inside jail cells. And white evangelicals have taken up causes to protect the vulnerable, whether fighting abortion or sex trafficking.
The collapse of moral leadership for a tradition that represents one-fifth of Americans would be an unfathomable loss. Let the ladies preach.
A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT ON EQUALITY
Kendi is the author of “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction. A professor of history and international relations at American University, he also heads its Antiracist Research and Policy Center.
Equality. That old idyllic portrait on America’s wall of democracy.
Too bad this beautiful portrait never reflected the ugly truth of American inequality — of slavery, concentrated wealth and power, mass poverty, disenfranchisement and incarceration; of sexism, racism, homophobia, elitism and Islamophobia, enduring and pervading. Divisions between groups are being powered by bigotry, ignorance and fear.
But there is a remedy: immediate equality of opportunity, which would go a long way toward eliminating disparities. No more of the liberal march to gradual equality. No more preserving permanent inequality.
The United States has been here before, when few were ready to do the right thing. In 1829, William Lloyd Garrison wrote, “no valid excuse can be given for the continuance of the evil [of slavery] a single hour.” Garrison and other abolitionists endured decades of slaveholders and gradual reformers insisting on the impracticality and impossibility of immediate emancipation.
Today, Americans hail abolitionists and know at least the basics of Abraham Lincoln’s immediate Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It ultimately saved America’s democracy from being mortally mutilated by the secessionist whips of Confederate slaveholders. But though the Union Army stopped the deadly whips in 1865, the discriminators carried on, continuing to divide “we the people” with bigotry, continuing to devastate democracy in their backward attempts to make America great again.
The United States needed then and needs now an Anti-Bigotry Amendment that would constitutionalize a critical principle: Group inequity is evidence of discrimination. The amendment would make group inequity illegal and ban the incitement of bigotry, as the incitement of anti-Semitism is banned in Germany. Claims that inequity is evidence of a group’s dysfunction or inferiority would be outlawed. The amendment would establish equality as a human right and inequality as anti-American and anti-human.
The Anti-Bigotry Amendment would permanently establish a federal agency that investigates inequities and punishes institutional and individual discriminators. This Department of Equity would repair inequities caused by past discrimination. It would be charged with building a nation of equal opportunity where only the diverse materials of merit pave the roadway toward success. This is the only equitable path toward a healthy U.S. democracy.
ESTABLISH NATIONAL UNITY WEEK
Chen is the David and Diane Steffy Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and director of domestic policy studies in the public policy program at Stanford University. He served as the policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
In a nation as divided as ever, we need a reminder of what brings us together and a time intentionally set aside to reach across divisions: a National Unity Week.
This wouldn’t just be a time for the usual rhetoric, but instead an opportunity for all Americans — public officials, famous figures and everyday citizens — to come together. It would be a chance for all of us to get out from behind the comfort of our self-assured social media feeds and interact with people we disagree with.
Each state, city, nonprofit, faith community, school, team, group or family could come up with their own way of embracing differences and reaching past divides. Imagine civil interactions between white police officers and those in the Black Lives Matter movement; Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders; Muslims and Christians; perhaps even Lakers and Celtics. National Unity Week would encourage strange bedfellows to serve their communities together and engage in the civil dialogue that our country so desperately needs.
Our nation’s leaders should begin National Unity Week by setting an example. Congress should commit to passing (and the president to signing) at least two pieces of legislation proposed by one of our nation’s many bipartisan boards and commissions. Some of these bodies, like the Social Security Advisory Board that I serve on, have spent years thinking of policy changes that leaders from both parties can accept. This would signal to Americans an understanding that our country’s future success hinges on compromise and a commitment to remain united despite our deeply held differences.
National Unity Week surely won’t solve all of the problems affecting our democracy, but hopefully it would remind us of our common destiny and the things that draw us together.
SWITCH TO INSTANT-RUNOFF VOTING
Slaughter is the president and chief executive of New America.
Fixing American democracy requires electoral rules that reward consensus-building and broad-based appeals, instead of narrow targeting, divisive mobilization and negative partisanship. The plurality two-party winner-take-all system pushes zero-sum negative campaigning because tearing down your opponent and mobilizing an intense core of supporters is the surest path to electoral victory. Moreover, that winner can win with only a minority of the votes cast, and an even smaller share of the electorate as a whole.
The solution is ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank their first, second, third or more choices for the office in question. If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, then the last-place finisher is eliminated and his or her supporters’ votes are transferred to their second-choice candidate in an instant runoff. That process continues until one candidate has won the support of a majority of voters.
It sounds more complicated than it is. As Lee Drutman of New America has laid out, all it really requires is that voters list multiple candidates instead of one, as they currently do in 11 American cities. The implications, however, are huge. Candidates cannot rely on being the first choice of only a narrow slice of the electorate; they have to campaign to be the second choice of another swath.
Perhaps most important, third-party candidates could be that second choice, breaking the hold of the two-party system. Indeed, mainstream-party candidates would have an incentive to appeal to supporters of other parties in the kind of coalition-building we see in parliamentary systems.
Voters would vote for the person of their choice more than the party, allowing the over 40 percent of Americans who identify as independents (vs. the under 30 percent who identify as either Republicans or Democrats) real political options to vote their actual preferences. That would be democracy.
REMIND THE GOVERNMENT: IT IS BEHOLDEN TO US
Penley is an artist who has created projects for Fox News, Coca-Cola, Kaiser Permanente and several U.S. presidents. Many of his paintings hang in offices of U.S. congressmen.
“Billions served” is intended to convey the idea that the U.S. government is set up to serve the citizens of the U.S. (and the world, for that matter). It is my feeling that our democracy is not set up for the people to be beholden to government — i.e., through high taxes, regulations and bureaucracy. Limited government seems to be the best working model.
REIN IN THE CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET OFFICE
Roy is president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity.
In a big, diverse country, there’s no way to avoid intense debates about our values. Should the government play a larger role or a smaller one? Should power be concentrated or decentralized? There’s a degree to which these debates will always be with us. In a democracy, that’s healthy. Except that the ability of our democratically elected leaders to enact the voters’ agenda is stymied by the byzantine process that produces our federal budget.
As Joe Biden’s dad used to say, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” By the Biden standard, America’s ossified approach to fiscal policy values entrenched interests over the voting public.
Politically connected entities are far more likely to get lawmakers to enact tax loopholes and pork-barrel spending. And thanks to the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, the budgeting process starts by preserving any prior federal spending — no matter how redundant or obsolete — in the federal budget “baseline.” Ending that requirement would help Congress find the funds for new priorities, simply by sunsetting programs that are no longer needed.
The 1974 law also created the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO is valuable for its nonpartisan scores of potential legislation. But its legal and procedural power matches that of the Supreme Court, with far less democratic responsibility.
Supreme Court justices, at least, are confirmed by the Senate; only the CBO director is similarly accountable. While detailed Supreme Court opinions are freely available to the public, the CBO adamantly refuses to post its forecasting models online. As a result, flaws in those models — flaws that stymie needed reform — go uncorrected. If Congress were to mandate full transparency for the CBO’s models, their accuracy would dramatically improve. After all, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
TEACH CRITICAL THINKING
Abdul-Jabbar’s most recent book is “Becoming Kareem,” an autobiographical account of his tumultuous, spiritual and athletic journey from childhood through college and his first year in the NBA.
America’s No. 1 problem is zombies. And, yes, they really do want to eat your brains. They will not stop until everyone is a mindless, staggering, empty-headed shell of humanity just like them. Fortunately, there is a cure.
Okay, zombies are a metaphor. But the reality is just as cataclysmic. Nazis marching in Charlottesville with presidential approval (their words). Racist policies in the administration. Seventy billion dollars for a border wall that no experts believe will work. Climate-change-denying head of the Environmental Protection Agency. NPR tweets the Declaration of Independence on July Fourth and receives vitriolic backlash from Trump supporters, who not only don’t recognize the words but claim the network is inciting violence.
Oh, the humanity!
The federal government is in gridlocked turmoil because we the people have elected a Gordian knot of representatives without the intellectual capability, moral integrity or patriotic zeal to lead this country. How has this come about? Because the zombies that surround us are those Americans who have abandoned their responsibility as citizens to make choices based on facts and logic rather than selfish emotions and comfortable traditions. They have chosen to allow others to manipulate them based on their fears rather than control their own futures through reasoned choices.
The solution is to teach mandatory critical thinking in every year of public school from first through 12th grade. Students must become familiar with all the logical fallacies — slippery slope, false dilemma, begging the question, etc. — that are used by those seeking to confuse and manipulate them, whether they are politicians grubbing for votes, Russians disseminating fake news to influence our elections, or misleading advertisers. As of now, we teach critical thinking in spurts or only as it applies to specific subjects. That’s why we can have successful professionals who can apply logic to their jobs such as law, engineering, medicine or business, but are unable to do so when it comes to human relationships, politics or social policies.
White supremacism, Breitbart, Fox News and Donald Trump would melt under the scrutiny of logic like the witch splashed with water in “The Wizard of Oz.”
It will take several generations to scrub away the sloppy thinking habits we’ve been encouraged to use because we face so much resistance. Some parents don’t want their kids rejecting their beliefs based on facts and logic, and elected officials used to whipping up base emotions don’t want a voting population that demands evidence and specific plans rather than rhetoric. However, by implementing logic as a form of cultural and political self-defense, we can stop the spread of the brainless zombies trying to infect the rest of us. You want to end the divisiveness? Bring us together through a shared use of reason.
GIVE EVERY TEEN A BLACK BOX
Collins is a physician-geneticist and the director of the National Institutes of Health.
As a physician-scientist who directs the world’s leading funder of biomedical research, I’m convinced that a better understanding of science is key to addressing many of the challenges facing America today. In one recent survey of high school students, the United States ranked 25th out of 73 nations in science literacy — lagging well behind most of our global economic competitors, including China, Japan and South Korea. And science literacy doesn’t get any better with age; in fact, 1 in 4 U.S. adults thinks the sun revolves around the Earth, according to a 2012 study.
Still, some research suggests that knowledge of scientific facts may not be the best gauge of science literacy. As a quote attributed to W.B. Yeats puts it: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Rather than focusing science teaching on memorization of lots of details, we should place greater emphasis on learning the scientific method and exploring how this logical, data-driven mode of inquiry can be applied to nearly every aspect of life — from health to finances to social media claims. Just imagine what America could accomplish if all of its citizens used the scientific method as a tool to improve their personal decision-making, as well as to inform their participation in broader economic, environmental and civic issues.
How would I teach the scientific method? I’d start by giving every American teenager a black box and asking: “What’s inside?” Seriously.
In fact, that’s what captured my imagination back in high school: On the first day of chemistry class, the teacher gave each of us a black box containing an unidentified object and asked us to come up with ways to investigate what the object was. This was a radical shift from a world in which teachers had simply poured scientific facts into my head that I was supposed to regurgitate on an exam. This was the first time that someone had challenged me to come up with the ideas — to design experiments myself, to get answers myself. And so I got caught up in the excitement of figuring out ways to determine what was inside the box. (It turned out to be a candle.)
More important, I’d gained a priceless tool for navigating life’s challenges, both individual and collective. And it’s this tool — the scientific method — that I’m convinced has the power to help Americans from all walks of life engage more thoughtfully in the respectful, evidence-based discussions needed to guide our nation’s future.
FUND ART CENTERS
Dove, a Pulitzer Prize winner, former U.S. poet laureate and Commonwealth professor of English at the University of Virginia, received the 2017 NAACP Image Award for her “Collected Poems: 1974-2004.”
Last December, on a whim, my husband and I flew to Germany. We were fleeing the holiday season, with its tinsel and spangly cheer, because, frankly, we were not of good cheer. Instead, like many of our friends, we felt disoriented; the election, and the sophomoric rallies before and after, had blasted away our complacent assumptions concerning decency and common sense. Our society’s fabric was unraveling; economically, racially, gender-wise, the chasms were growing.
So we fled. We had no clear plans, but we’re opera buffs, so we checked the Internet and there they were, arrayed like a gourmet menu: dozens of operas and musicals for the booking, with good seats still available at reasonable prices (no thousand-dollar tickets!), and not just in cultural hubs like Berlin and Munich and Hamburg and Cologne, but midsize cities like Kassel and Nuremberg, and industrial centers outside tourist agendas, like Duisburg and Hagen.
Over the span of three weeks we gorged ourselves on a dozen performances, choosing our destinations and booking our hotels guided mostly by best seat availabilities and production reviews in local papers. In between we visited museums and Christmas markets, ate out and toured the colorful shops clustered along pedestrian malls. We contributed to the economy gladly, because each place we visited gave us something priceless in return: a feeling that, for the space of an evening, beauty overwhelmed petty differences.
There are over 80 opera companies in Germany (that’s nearly as many as in the rest of the world combined!), all with impressive theater buildings and resident troupes — actors, singers, musicians, administrators and stagehands, with firm wages and health care, who are part of the communities they serve. Audience attendance, much of it subscription-based, ranges from teenagers to grandparents. I saw frayed khakis and cocktail sheaths, Skechers and stilettoes. People smiled at strangers during intermission. This, of course, doesn’t come cheap to “the taxpayer” — but rarely is a fuss raised over the hefty subsidies budgeted into state and local revenues. Germans, across much of the political spectrum, consider supporting the arts a civic duty.
If I were allowed to rub the genie’s lamp, I’d ask for public support of theater, ballet and opera companies with resident troupes in our country. I’d establish art centers all over small-town and rural America and integrate them with school systems, making access affordable; high-quality live performances should not just be for the wealthy. Let’s educate our citizenry in the appreciation of beauty through artistic performance, which over time might allow us to connect on levels where differences in race, class and gender lose their insidious sway, where we can meet soul to soul. There is no greater empowerment than the awareness that one is not alone in one’s feelings. Once self-esteem and hope have been engendered, the work of redefining the future is well underway.
PUSH FOR CIVIL RIGHTS EDUCATION
Powell is a best-selling graphic novelist. His work includes “March,” the graphic memoir of congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. Powell is the only cartoonist to win the National Book Award. His next book is titled “Come Again.”
PREVENT LEFT-WING MEDIA BIAS
Young is a contributing editor for Reason and a columnist for Newsday.
Americans’ trust in the mainstream media has fallen to alarming lows. In Gallup polls, confidence in newspapers plunged to 20 percent last year, down from 30 percent in 2006 and 51 percent in 1979. (Television news gets fairly similar ratings.) This year, the trend has been reversed — 27 percent said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers — but among Republicans, ratings have dropped even further.
Reflexive distrust of the media has dire effects on public life. It undermines the press’s ability to check abuses by government and other powerful entities. It breeds echo chambers and “fake news.”
Some of this erosion of trust is due to partisanship and deliberate propaganda. But the media should resist the temptation to absolve themselves. (Independents’ views of the press are somewhat closer to Republicans’ than to Democrats’.) Journalists at major news organizations do have a tendency toward left-of-center groupthink — especially on social and cultural issues, which arouse the most emotion. Coverage of gun-control debates, for instance, often tend to assume that there’s no legitimate reason anyone could own a gun or favor gun ownership.
This groupthink often leads to lack of due skepticism toward story lines that fit journalists’ confirmation bias. Thus, a recent Politico story on gun lobby contributions to politicians failed to note that this money is a small fraction of total fundraising.
One way to address this problem would be for mainstream news organizations to have fact-checking and review panels that reflect genuine political, ideological and cultural diversity — not only to watch for factual distortions but to watch for unexamined biases and assumptions. (Yes, conservative media also need to watch their echo-chamber tendencies, but institutions claiming nonpartisanship should be held to a higher standard.) Another way to promote accountability would be to hold periodic town hall sessions in which journalists can talk and listen to citizens outside the social media circus.
Of course, some true believers will always shout down any news they don’t like as “fake news.” But if the media do better at fairness, they can start rebuilding lost trust.
LET GOVERNMENT CO-OWN NEW TECHNOLOGIES
Rodrik is a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and author of “Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy.”
A specter is haunting our societies: job-killing technology. In a world in which machines do the work of humans, the lion’s share of the productivity gains will accrue to the owners of the new technologies and the equipment that embody them.
But the gains and losses of innovation can be repackaged in a manner that benefits everyone. The welfare state democratized 20th-century capitalism; the 21st century requires an analogous shift to what we might call an “innovation state.”
What we can do is formalize and expand the stake that society already has in new technologies. Private innovation relies on a wide range of public supports — from direct subsidies to infrastructure, from public education and universities to intellectual property rules. Plant Silicon Valley’s brightest minds in the developing world, and they’d hardly be as productive — or as rich. These supports amply justify a financial dividend for society at large.
Imagine that the government sets up a number of professionally managed public venture funds that invest and take equity stakes in a large cross section of new technologies. The needed resources can be raised by issuing bonds in financial markets. These funds would operate on market principles and have to provide periodic accounting to political authorities, but would otherwise be autonomous.
Society, through its agent — the government — would then end up as co-owner of the new generation of technologies and machines. The public venture funds’ share of profits would be returned to ordinary citizens in the form of a social innovation dividend.
This income stream would supplement workers’ earnings. It would also give them the flexibility to reduce working hours — finally realizing Marx’s dream of a society in which technological advance enables individuals to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.”
REDEFINE THE FLAG
Hochschild is the author of “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.”
How do we cross the empathy wall now dividing Trump fan from foe? When we interact with Americans we don’t agree with, how do we actually talk to them? Do we just say, “This is what I believe”? No. Instead, we must learn to symbol stretch. During the five years I researched tea party and Trump voters in southern Louisiana, I followed a master of the symbol stretch: Russel Honoré, a retired three-star general and the legendary commander of the military joint task force that rescued Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans.
Honoré was struck, during his rescue work, by Louisiana’s horrendous pollution. He retired from the Army, became an environmental activist and — facing the challenge of talking about regulating polluters to conservative Republicans who opposed doing so — discovered a way of opening their minds. One day in Lake Charles, I watched him speak to a group of conservative businessmen who think of themselves as lovers of freedom — freedom to start their own business, to get rich, to avoid government regulation. “This morning, I looked out at Lake Charles,” the general began, “and saw a man in a boat. He had his fishing line out and he had his bucket ready. But that man is not free to pull up an uncontaminated fish.” I could see the audience nodding. The general had stretched the idea of freedom.
In the same spirit, we need to stretch the idea of patriotism. As I drove around Louisiana, I saw American flags posted on mailboxes, fluttering from truck beds and hanging from back porches. For most Trump fans I came to know, the flag symbolized a willingness to sacrifice — even die — for their country. It did not symbolize an independent judiciary or a free press as part of the system of checks and balances that undergirds democracy. Maybe it’s time to stretch the meaning of the American flag, from emblem of sacrifice to symbol of that for which we would sacrifice: a system that allows no person, even a president, to put himself above the law.
STOP OBSESSING ABOUT WHITE PRIVILEGE
McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy and music history at Columbia University, and hosts Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast on language.
In our society’s approach to race, we have come under the impression that showing we understand racism is more important than actually battling its consequences. Americans must progress beyond the temptations of this virtue signaling — and return to concern with making black lives better in the real world.
Anti-racism has become what a scientific analysis would treat as religion: Attesting to white privilege is analogous to conceding original sin; America one day “coming to terms with” race refers to no specific or even conceivable situation — except Judgment Day. Donald Trump’s racially unenlightened essence has been clear for years now, and yet his every expression of it elicits lusty expressions of horror that almost ominously parallel celebration. Those deemed “racist” on the basis of a tweet are treated with a prosecutorial zeal that both Galileo and Dana Carvey’s Church Lady would find familiar.
Anti-racism, as a religion, entails a degree of suspension of logic. Calls for Black Lives Matter to address homicides within black neighborhoods as well as killings by cops have been furiously dismissed despite poor blacks being in much more danger of the former than the latter, because anything attributable to racism must be battled regardless of grievous on-the-ground realities. Or, we are to assume that obsession with even the subtler corners of white psychology on race is somehow a necessary prelude to black lives improving. This idea has precedent neither in human history nor in what civil rights leaders assumed just two generations ago. It currently feels right because anti-racism is today’s version of the inner faith that is of interest to the theologian.
We must get poor black people viable work, eliminate the war on drugs, make sure poor black kids are taught how to read with effective methods, and make long-acting reversible contraception available to women who want it. The case is fragile that any of this requires, or is even assisted by, whites attesting to their privilege or pretending to embrace the patently oversimplified fantasy that all whites who voted for our terrible president are bigots. Virtue signaling is about you. Real racial uplift is about someone else. That’s harder in ways — but not so long ago, we were clearer on this reality.
END THE BLAME GAME
Anderson is a designer, writer and educator. She is a partner at Anderson Newton Design. She previously served as creative director of design at SpotCo. From 1987 to 2002, she produced award-winning pages at Rolling Stone magazine.
Finger pointing is a common complaint about government — but it’s also something we’re often guilty of day to day. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to initiate or even incite change.
Williams is founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law and a distinguished professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. Her most recent book is “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.”
Just as we Americans hate Congress but like our own representatives, we hate government but like government programs. The problem is that many of us don’t realize how much government does for us. A 2008 poll by the Cornell Survey Research Institute asked 1,400 Americans whether they had personally benefited from a government social program. Fifty-seven percent said they had not, but when questioned further, it turned out 94 percent of them had. They had simply overlooked programs that provide services such as low-interest student loans or tax-free retirement accounts.
Similarly, many Americans deride government regulation and think, “If I own a business or a piece of land, I should be able to do what I want with it.” But when businesses successfully fight or sidestep regulation, often they end up privatizing profits while socializing risk. Developers keep the profits when they build on floodplains and fill in wetlands in hurricane-prone places like Texas and Florida, but it’s taxpayers who foot the bills for disaster relief and flood insurance payouts. Banks make wild money on excessively risky assets, only to have taxpayers bail them out so they can do it again. Fast-food and retail businesses fight minimum-wage hikes and instead pay workers so little that taxpayers cover workers’ food stamps and health insurance. This is not capitalism. It’s a rip-off.
We need to shift Americans toward a more realistic view of government. How? Social media.
Let’s have ordinary Americans — and famous ones — create short videos or post pictures or upload stories that highlight bankers, developers or others privatizing profits while socializing risk. Or point out how government makes your daily life possible:
I got up, turned on the faucet, and water came out. Many thanks to my municipal water supply.
I gave my kids their cereal — thanks for keeping their milk safe, FDA.
I jumped in the car. Thanks for the highway system!
By the way, thanks for funding the invention of the Internet, Defense Department.
You can add: We did this together — the government still works for us.
Go make a video — short and preferably funny — and post it. Or upload a picture or just tweet about how government works for you. Tag your posts with #GovernmentStillWorksForUs. By celebrating all that it does, you will have taken the first step toward reminding Americans that the government is us.
PEER REVIEW FOR CANDIDATES
Kamarck is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Why Presidents Fail and How They Can Succeed Again.”
In 2016, the Republicans nominated the least experienced and most temperamentally unsuited person to ever win the presidency. The leadership of the Republican Party sat powerless as an unknown and untested leader won primary after primary. In the end, the party did the only thing it could do in the modern nomination system: unite behind Donald Trump rather than risk alienating voters.
And now, nine months into the reign of President Chaos, all the fears about him are real. It wasn’t an act. The president is as inexperienced and as mercurial as he appeared in the campaign, and many are wondering how we got here.
For most of American history, the candidates who ran for president were chosen in a process that was almost entirely closed to the public. The selection was left to political parties or to what we now disparagingly call “superdelegates.” Ordinary citizens did not participate in the process of nominating presidential candidates, nor did they expect to. The process subjected candidates to an element of peer review. People with political and governmental experience evaluated nominees before the voters did.
It took only 40 years for the American nomination system to flip entirely. By 2008, the views of primary voters were considered the only legitimate views, while the views of party leaders were considered illegitimate at best and downright corrupt at worst. And thus in 2016 the system served up a man who could not have won the nomination had it been controlled by other political leaders.
So here’s an idea: Inject an element of peer review back into the nomination process. Require each party’s leaders, its members of Congress and its governors to pass formal judgment on presidential wannabes, and make them do it before the primaries. The voters might still reject the preferences of the party leaders — but at least they would have been warned.
A MARSHALL PLAN FOR AMERICA
Pandith is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming book “How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat.” She was the first-ever special representative to Muslim communities at the U.S. State Department.
It’s hard to imagine, but for past generations of Americans, citizenship was a rich, living thing. In his 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, R.I., George Washington presented citizenship as a precondition of democratic governance. Arguing that our political system didn’t merely allow for the “toleration” of differences, he posited that the U.S. government, “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Today, the concept of “good citizens” seems ill-defined, elusive, even anachronistic. The lived, emotional experience of citizenship has atrophied, leaving behind a superficial, formalistic patriotism that distances us from one another and the historical foundations of our civic life. To help heal the republic, we must inspire Americans to become once again the kind of “good citizens” Washington would have recognized. We must rediscover how to conduct ourselves in civil ways regardless of our private beliefs, and to treat all other Americans with dignity and respect. We must come to see good citizenship as a vital part of our common patrimony.
To that end, I propose launching a domestic Marshall Plan dedicated to rebuilding a nation of “good citizens.” The public and private sectors would come together around a “National Civic Plan” designed with incentives to deepen honest and open relationships across communities and the nation as a whole. Tapping the latest knowledge about human behavior and committed common purpose, this plan would support specially trained local teams to scale a broad set of community-driven, public-spirited programs. Among other areas of focus, these programs would work to expand knowledge of civics and unvarnished U.S. history; produce practical skill development in the areas of listening, empathy and compassion; and promote an ethos of civility and good works.
The National Civic Plan would take advantage of America’s entrepreneurial culture and the latest social media technology, reconnecting Americans with a multilayered experience of good citizenship. Engagement with the duties and blessings of citizenship would once again become a tangible part of our everyday lives, as was the case in the days of our Founding Fathers.
CREATE A SYSTEM OF VOTING CREDITS
Posner is a professor of law at the University of Chicago and the author, with E. Glen Weyl, of “Radical Markets: Uprooting Property and Democracy for a Just Society,” to be published next year.
The problem with democracy is that it does not give people the ability to influence political outcomes — the election of candidates, or policy choices of the sort determined by referendum — in proportion to the intensity of their values and interests. Democracy gives you three options for expressing your view about a candidate: vote for, vote against or don’t vote. But people’s views are more nuanced. They might intensely oppose one person while being largely indifferent toward a slate of other candidates. They might care more about local elections than national elections, or vice versa. They might care little about candidates but care passionately about an issue — gun control, tax reform, health care — that might be determined in a referendum.
The weakness of “political markets” can be seen by comparing them to normal markets, where people can express the intensity of their preferences by outbidding others in an auction. If you care more about a house for sale than anyone else, you can get it by offering to pay more. This is why markets are a good way of allocating resources (putting aside the problems created by wealth inequality). But there is no way for one group of people to collectively outbid another group of people on issues such as abortion, gun control or health-care reform. And this is why democracies produce such unsatisfactory outcomes (“democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” as Winston Churchill observed).
Fortunately, there is a solution. Imagine that all citizens are allocated an equal “budget” consisting of an artificial currency (“credits”). You obtain this budget when you reach voting age, and it is replenished every few years. Then it’s up to you to allocate your budget of credits across different elections and referendums, spending as much or as little as you want for (or against) a candidate, or a referendum proposal. This would create a kind of auction system for political markets. Because of the limited budget, people would be forced to spend more credits on candidates or issues they really care about, and fewer on others.
One more thing. For technical reasons, a voter must pay in credits an amount equal to the square of the number of votes he or she casts in a particular election — 10 votes cost 100 credits, for example. This makes it more expensive to increase one’s influence, based on the principle that if I’m going to get my way on one issue, I should have to pay for it in lost opportunities to get my way in some other area of life.
KEEP EDUCATION PUBLIC
Lois is an art director, designer and author. He is best known for his Esquire magazine covers from 1962 to 1972. He is also known for his ad campaign work, including “I Want My MTV,” Tommy Hilfiger and ESPN, and has created winning ad campaigns for four U.S. senators: Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.), Hugh Scott (R-Pa.) and Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.).
TAKE A STAND, LOCAL OFFICIALS
Takei is an actor, writer and activist. The musical “Allegiance” was inspired by his experience in Japanese American internment camps, and he’s working on a graphic novel version of his life story to be released by IDW Publishing next year.
As our nation again grapples with very tough questions around race — while white supremacists walk our streets and our president equivocates — I am reminded that America has never been fully free of racism’s shadow. Indeed, our greatest sorrows, the most horrific chapters of our history, grabbed hold when racism became government policy, extended by all the power of the state. The genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans and African Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans — all occurred with the sanction of our elected representatives.
My father once remarked that, as a people’s democracy, America can be as great as the people who inhabit it, but also as fallible. When we choose leaders who personify our greatest hopes, we advance as a people. But when we choose fear, division and hate, we careen once more down a dangerous path.
The whipping up of racial hatred is not the exclusive purview of either major party. It was a Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who signed Executive Order 9066 and set in motion the internment of my community. And it was a Republican, Earl Warren, then attorney general of California, who advocated most vocally for our incarceration. These men were willing to tap into deep wellsprings of mistrust and ignorance to advance their agendas and political fortunes.
So when I hear talk, as I do so often lately, that caricatures, labels and vilifies whole groups, when I see scapegoating the vulnerable become the order of the day, I know that the greatest danger is silence or inaction, for history is eager for another go at our darkest impulses, to prove our tragic fallibility once more.
In the absence of strong national leadership on the question, state and local officials must take a stand and proclaim that racial hatred has no place in their towns and cities. Our local elected officials should stand arm in arm with peaceful counterprotesters. If the answer to racial division is racial unity, the answer to racist demagoguery is courageous leadership in the very face of that hate. It is now up to today’s local politicians to make a difference, to avoid the tragedy of our past when so few spoke up.
MANDATE GUN INSURANCE
Growing up in rural South Texas, I developed a deep fascination with firearms. Then I moved to the Pacific Northwest and didn’t see a gun up close for nearly 20 years. Upon returning to Texas, I was invited to a book event at then-Gov. Rick Perry’s mansion, and I remember that morning stopping dead in my tracks when, from a distance of about a block away, I saw a middle-aged, uniformed Texas Ranger holding an AR-15, bold as day. It made my blood run cold. That was the moment I understood my relationship to guns had changed completely. While I still find the engineering and physics of guns wildly interesting, I just don’t trust them in the hands of anyone. Not even my own.
So it’s been with a profound sense of hopelessness that I’ve been tinkering with a fanciful solution to gun management in the United States. It’s arguably our country’s most intractable issue; if progress can somehow be made on guns, then it would suggest that any number of problems in our democracy could be pragmatically solved.
In broad strokes, gun owners should be required to maintain insurance on the weapons they wish to keep. Insurance companies could then be held liable if that weapon was used in the commission of a crime. Guns are much more dangerous than vehicles, so why should vehicles get more scrutiny than guns? And, well, money talks: If insurance companies were required to insure weapons, I think we’d see a huge shift in background checks, as well as updated and well-maintained profiles of gun owners.
Can we imagine a world where a gun owner is refused purchase of a high-capacity magazine because he has a “preexisting condition of a hot temper” or “an abusive online profile” — and his insurance company therefore deems him a financial risk? This wouldn’t solve the issue of rampant massacres or inner-city crime immediately, but maybe over one or two generations, we could maneuver the same insurance debacle we can’t seem to shake into regulating the gun addiction we can’t seem to break. Make one demon fight the other demon. You would have capitalism policing democracy.
How American is that? It’s so American, it’s actually Texan.
END AMERICAN ARROGANCE
Hansen is the author of “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World.”
America needs a collective, national reconsideration of its history. When the millions of white European immigrants passed through Ellis Island, they were essentially told to forget the past, which meant not only that of their origin countries, but America’s as well. Wipe the slate clean, determine your own fate — this was the American ethos they adopted.
As liberating as it might have been, it also meant that they were not encouraged to adopt America’s ugly history as their own: the conquering of Native American lands, the enslavement of Africans, the beginnings of a global power play that would eventually force much of the world to be remade in its image. A basic, practical knowledge of this history — of what it actually means to be American, rather than the softer, gentler, idealistic version put forward by our leaders — would neuter the concept of American exceptionalism and perhaps temper American arrogance, abroad but also at home.
This is not at all a project liberals would be exempt from; it is often liberals who, deep down, believe in American exceptionalism the most because who else but they are the most beautiful proof of all its wonders? This misguided faith in our specialness has lured liberals as well as conservatives to ruin, but, worse, it has made Americans, especially white Americans, dangerously irrational about their divine right to power.
The 2016 election was painful proof that Americans — in the wake of 9/11, the financial crisis, two disastrous wars and a disintegration of the facade of world order — no longer know what it means to be “American.” Too often, our identity has been rooted not in liberalism or freedom or equality but rather in power — even as the history of how we accumulated that power remains vague to us or even entirely unknown. These dark days offer a rare opportunity for all of us to imagine ourselves again.
A GRASS-ROOTS REVOLT AGAINST FAKE NEWS
Nossel is executive director of PEN America.
We need to mobilize a movement of news consumers to enable members of the public to take charge of their news consumption, distinguish between real and fraudulent news, and counteract the threat to our discourse posed by political opportunists and profiteers who traffic in fake news. The 2016 election, the recent hurricanes and the mass shooting in Las Vegas all illustrate the potential for fraudulent news to distort public perceptions, sow confusion, polarize and mislead.
The Constitution doesn’t allow the government to prohibit or punish fraudulent publication, except in certain narrow categories; nor would we want to, for fear that such authority would be misused as a tool of power. Asking Facebook and Google to aggressively police falsehoods isn’t the answer either; it would give those two huge corporations even more say than they have now over what Americans see and read.
The best answer to the spreading problem of fraudulent news is to build a news consumer audience that is equipped and motivated to differentiate fact from falsehood. My organization, PEN America, has laid some groundwork for this by issuing a News Consumers’ Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. Realizing these rights will require a massive expansion of news literacy efforts to be part of basic childhood education for the 21st century. In addition, news organizations and social media platforms need to produce accessible, easy-to-use tools that allow consumers to vet and evaluate the information they get, understanding who it comes from and how it was compiled and confirmed. And activated news consumers need to come together to demand transparency, hold information purveyors accountable, and put their eyeballs where their mouths are by favoring news sources that meet high standards.
Decades ago, consumers mobilized to make cars and household appliances safer. With the proliferation of news sources and the potential for deceptive news to wreak harm, a new generation of consumers should mobilize to demand similarly high standards for the news that commands our time and attention.
REVIVE HUMAN DECENCY
Holland is a D.C.-based producer, documentary/television editor, writer and artist.
Human decency is at the root of democracy. They are symbiotic, and none of us live in a vacuum. Whenever we are callous or disrespectful toward our fellow humans, that callousness and disrespect give tacit permission for others to do the same. When we consume ourselves only with our own lives, everyone loses.
BRING BACK THE COLD WAR ECONOMY
Krein is editor of the public policy journal American Affairs.
Since the end of the Cold War, we have come to assume that the global economy operates above and beyond national political institutions. And if it is true that national political communities have no basis in economic reality, then any attempt to revive American civic life will be futile.
But this perception is false. To the extent that the economy has been depoliticized, it is as a result of policy choices on trade, taxation, regulation, research funding — policies that have benefited few at the expense of many. Our frayed social fabric is an inevitable consequence of these decisions, and it can be repaired by correcting them.
As the corporate sector has renounced any national political obligations, and the wealthiest Americans have separated themselves from fellow citizens, the economy has grown anti-competitive. Productivity growth is at historic lows, and wages have stagnated — all while record amounts of cash sit idle on corporate and financial sector balance sheets. The economy was healthier when the national government exercised greater direction over it during the Cold War era. Moreover, many of the fundamental innovations — such as the Internet — on which today’s most profitable businesses were built were created with significant government involvement.
Today’s business leaders appear to think of national governments only as problems to be managed — except when they need a bailout. Yet national governments are the only institutions capable of addressing the structural causes of both our economic malaise and corrosive inequality. These problems will not be solved by the magic of markets or the hypocritical moralizing of oligarchs. The state needs to take a larger role in many areas — such as increasing funding for basic research in science and technology, establishing a universal health insurance system and keeping medical costs in line with the rest of the developed world, implementing trade and tax policies designed to incentivize investment within the United States, and more.
Charles Erwin Wilson, former CEO of General Motors, once said that “what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa.” That was actually true once, and conscious political action is required to make it true again. Restoring the positive role of national institutions in addressing our economic challenges is the essential precondition for the renewal of our civic life.
PERSUADE VOTERS TO KEEP CLICKING
Naím is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be.”
Inept, corrupt or extremist political leaders are harming our democracy. So, too, are the voters who don’t check if what they are reading, hearing or viewing is true. Our democracy’s problems are not just caused by bad leaders but also by indolent voters.
Citizens who don’t care about politics have always existed. As have those who vote without knowing much about who or what they are voting for — or against. But things have changed. Today, the failure of these voters to “click again” and find out more about their choices threatens all of us. The Internet makes apathetic voters especially vulnerable to the manipulations of demagogues, particular interests or even foreign powers.
The Founding Fathers worried about the impact of the uneducated or ill-informed on American democracy. James Madison argued, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” Thomas Jefferson hoped that education would be the antidote: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
It is a paradox of our time: Information has never been easier to find and yet we have all become more vulnerable to misinformation, manipulation and propaganda. The Internet is both a marvelous source of insights and a toxic channel through which weaponized lies freely circulate.
Moreover, it’s never been easier to ensconce ourselves in echo chambers that feed our prejudices, exploit our digital tribalism and strip away our defenses against the sophisticated tricks used by manipulators — often stealthily.
What to do? First, undertake a massive and sustained public education campaign to persuade as many voters as possible to click again. And again. Until they are satisfied that the facts on which they base their political preferences are not lies. Second, make life harder for the manipulators and lower their impunity by naming and shaming them and even suing, fining and jailing the worst offenders. Third, get social media companies to stop enabling the manipulators. Require them to deploy their technological and marketing prowess to protect their consumers, and make it costly for tech companies to allow their platforms to become launching pads for antidemocratic aggressions.
CULTIVATE NATIONAL GRATEFULNESS
Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently told troops in the Middle East that “we’re so doggone lucky to be Americans.” The remark resonated with the soldiers, some of whom responded by shouting, “God bless America.” But such forthright patriotism, along with the implication that as Americans we have a lot to be grateful for, is rare today.
We are currently trapped in a politics of grievance that is exploited by leaders at both ends of the ideological spectrum. On one side are those who doubt our good fortune and resent the fact that some Americans have more advantages than others. Some also believe that our overall good fortune as a country, to the degree that it is acknowledged, is unfair to those less fortunate in the world and is even the source of their poverty or victimization. This leads to an attitude of guilt and an inability to affirm our country’s virtues and values. At the other end of the spectrum, the reaction to this attitude is an assertive nationalism and a tendency to turn our backs on a supposedly hostile world.
To get beyond the negativism and divisiveness of the current period, we need to recover an understanding of the purpose of — to quote Mattis again — “this great experiment you and I call America.” That purpose is rooted in what Lincoln called “that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time.” We need to cultivate — unashamedly — a feeling of gratitude for our country, which remains the hope of people everywhere who cherish freedom and human dignity.
One way to awaken this sense of gratitude would be to establish more links between Americans and people in other countries who are fighting for the basic freedoms that we enjoy. We can also try to build upon the expressions of affirmation and solidarity that began to surface after Charlottesville and the NFL controversy. May the present crisis stir new voices to celebrate the liberty and pluralism that remain our country’s glory.
Bierut is a partner in the New York office of the international design consultancy Pentagram, where his work includes brand identity, book design, packaging and environmental graphics. He is on the faculty of the Yale School of Management and a senior critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art. His collection of essays, “Now You See It,” will be published in November.