The United States has been living through a slow-moving legitimacy crisis for some time now. There are things we can do about it.
My first flashing red alert came when Congress’s approval rating hit an all-time low of 9 percent in 2012; it has climbed back to a still meager 31 percent. In a constitutional democracy, the national legislature — whose job is to synthesize and articulate the will of the people — is the first branch. If the people don’t approve their own voice, constitutional democracy is broken.
My second flashing red alert was the finding that only about 30 percent of millennials — people under age 40, so we’re not talking about children — consider it essential to live in a democracy. It’s a basic fact that you don’t get to have a democracy if people don’t want one. The failure of this country to grapple effectively with climate change and the abysmal state of our criminal-justice system have contributed to undermining the conviction of the young that this constitutional democracy can deliver what the Declaration of Independence promises: our safety and happiness, grounded on a foundation of security for rights.
My most personal red alert came in 2009 when my cousin was killed three years after his release from prison by someone he had met there. He served 11 years, after being sentenced at age 15 on a first arrest for an attempted — i.e., failed — carjacking. I should have confronted earlier what was happening to black men in this country, but I began facing it squarely then.
When you have a legitimacy crisis, and cycles of disempowerment across society, not only for black and brown citizens but also for white, for rural as well as urban, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when you have revolution in your streets. The issues people confront are legion and conflicting. What unites them across ideological divides is a conviction that our processes of governance are failing to deliver security and opportunity.
This belief is correct. The fact that we have not by now suppressed the pandemic and achieved a sound foundation for securing lives, liberties and livelihoods simultaneously has been a failure of governance — a failure to set a sound policy direction, communicate and educate about it, and implement it effectively, activating the resources of our federal system in harmonized collaboration.
The situation is dire. The causes for personal anger many. In my own case, incandescent rage has blocked my capacity to think for several days. For me, prayer helps.
There is something we can do.
First, choose peace. Revolution never succeeds unless it rides on the back of a deeper commitment to the process of constitution. The goal has to be to build. These things can be done only on the basis of a commitment to peace. We need a better normal at the end of this. Not a new normal, a rinse and repeat of the old but with face masks. We need peace. Social movement leaders across the ideological spectrum should renounce violence. Americans for Prosperity should disavow people who bring guns to rallies. Black Lives Matter should disavow the antifa movement, which is real and dangerous.
Second, choose self-government. Societies can resolve their problems through only one of two mechanisms: authoritarian decision or self-government. Self-government delivers the sturdier foundation for human flourishing — a foundation that permits people to craft their own life courses and develop their full potential. To choose self-government, however, means to choose the institutions of collective decision-making. Voting, running for office, working through committee processes to identify and implement policy solutions.
Yet how can we choose self-government when there is broad perception that those institutions are failing? We have to start by reforming the institutions themselves. They have to work for us. Part of resolving our crisis will be about restoring our national capacity for governance via self-government.
Third, channel the energies of protest directly into governance even through our imperfect institutions. We need a transformed criminal-justice system. Yes, it is good that the officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck has been criminally charged. But the problems we face are not solved one case of police violence at a time. We need a systems-level goal.
Here is what we should choose: reduce our reliance on incarceration from 70 percent of the sanctions imposed in our criminal-justice system to 10 percent. This is not utopian. The Netherlands uses incarceration at about this rate and Germany at an even lower rate. There are alternatives for responding to wrongdoing and wrongdoers than our violent criminal-justice system. If we pick this one goal and organize our energy around that, everything else will change — policing, drug policies, court processes, the depths of our despair, our health, our freedom, our economic opportunities. Everything.
How do we do this? Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) have proposed a national commission tasked with undertaking “a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system,” including recommendations for federal reform and advice to state, local and tribal governments. They point out that such a thing has not happened in 50 years.
That idea was dropped in the process of passing the First Step criminal-justice reform law, but it should be revived — now. This means lifting our voices to every congressperson in this land, calling for this commission and holding our representatives accountable for populating it with individuals able to envision a transformed peace for all.
No justice, no peace, we often say. It’s also true, though, that without peace, there is no justice.