“There are in history what you could call ‘plastic hours,’” the philosopher Gershom Scholem once said. “Namely, crucial moments when it is possible to act. If you move then, something happens.” In such moments, an ossified social order suddenly turns pliable, prolonged stasis gives way to motion, and people dare to hope. Plastic hours are rare. They require the right alignment of public opinion, political power, and events—usually a crisis. They depend on social mobilization and leadership. They can come and go unnoticed or wasted. Nothing happens unless you move.
Are we living in a plastic hour? It feels that way.
Beneath the dreary furor of the partisan wars, most Americans agree on fundamental issues facing the country. Large majorities say that government should ensure some form of universal health care, that it should do more to mitigate global warming, that the rich should pay higher taxes, that racial inequality is a significant problem, that workers should have the right to join unions, that immigrants are a good thing for American life, that the federal government is plagued by corruption. These majorities have remained strong for years. The readiness, the demand for action, is new. . . .
. . . . Last year, a commission created by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences spent months talking to a variety of groups around the country. Disaffection with the state of American democracy was nearly universal, but so was a longing for connection to a unifying American identity. In June the commission released a report called “Our Common Purpose,” which put forth 31 proposals, some quite bold. They include political reforms that would make institutions more representative: enlarge the House of Representatives; adopt ranked-choice voting; end gerrymandering by having independent groups of citizens draw district lines; amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United; appoint Supreme Court justices to 18-year terms, with one new nomination in each term of Congress.
Other recommendations are designed to change the political culture: make voting easier but also mandatory, connect voters with their representatives, train community leaders around the country, rebuild social media as a more constructive public space, shape an active citizenry through civic education and universal national service. The aim is not to realize any partisan cause, but to set Americans into motion as civic actors, not passive subjects. “Democracy works only if enough people believe democracy works,” Eric Liu, a co-chair of the commission that produced the report, told me.
Ideas like these, some new, others lying around for decades, come to the fore in hinge years. They are signs of a plastic hour.
I began writing this essay in a mood of despair. The mood had grown so familiar, really almost comfortable, that it made me sick of myself and my country. But because I can’t give up on either—suicide is too final, and expatriation is no longer possible—I tried to think about the future and the past. And this is what I’ve come to believe: We have one more chance—in Lincoln’s words, a “last best hope”—to bring our democracy back from the dead. It will be like a complex medical rescue that requires just the right interventions, in just the right sequence, at just the right speed: amputation, transfusion, multiple-organ transplant, stabilization, rehabilitation. Each step will be very hard, and we can’t afford to get any wrong or wait another hour. Yet I’ve written myself into a state of mind that I recognize as hope. We’ve made America before. Self-government still gives us the chance. Everything is in our hands.