It is essential to remember the influence we each have — as citizens of the United States and as members of our local communities.
This weekend, Americans celebrate the independence of a nation founded on the ideals of equality, liberty and life. Yet, we're also a nation roiled by racial injustice and weeks of protests against the deaths of George Floyd and other African American men and women at the hands of police.
This Fourth of July, many Americans may not feel much affection for our nation at all.
The American Academy of Arts and Science’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship has a response: It is time for a “fourth founding” to help us recover our love for our country and for one another.
In its new report, "Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century," the commission offers a narrative of American history punctuated by three “foundings,” each a watershed era that ushered in greater equity and justice.
The first founding began, of course, on July 4, 1776; the era promised to protect Americans' "unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," but for many Americans it failed to do so.
The second founding began with the Civil War and continued into Reconstruction. By abolishing slavery and enfranchising black male citizens, this era moved America a little closer to better realizing the equality promised in the Declaration.
And the third founding began in the 1960s during the Civil Rights era, when America’s promise of equality was further enshrined in society and in the law.
America, the commission says, now needs a fourth founding, which will require a commitment from each of us to create the “more perfect union” that our Constitution promises.
Expand the size of Congress
The commission recommends several intriguing changes to America’s political institutions, including an increase in the number of U.S. House seats, making Election Day a national holiday and allowing states to experiment with multi-member congressional districts.
The report also suggests that charitable institutions fund “the so-called civic one million: the catalytic leaders who drive civic renewal in communities around the country."
And it calls on young Americans to serve their country — whether in the military, AmeriCorps or government. A period of service to the greater good should become the expected norm in our nation rather than an option a few choose to accept.
A key aspect of the commission's work is the recognition that our nation's civic health depends on each of three prongs — functional government at all levels, strong private institutions and engaged individuals. Each supports the other, and when one fails, we all suffer.
Why there's reason for hope
Much of our current national dialogue is pessimistic in tone, and understandably so given our problems. But commission members, who engaged in 50 listening sessions with the public in preparing the report, say they grew more optimistic as their work progressed.
Why? Because they saw that Americans already were driving the cultural and social changes our country desperately needs. For example, the commission re-evaluated its findings in light of the coronavirus pandemic and concluded that “even as government faltered, citizens across the country responded with selfless generosity, a spirit of mutual aid, a willingness to sacrifice for the common good, as well as unbounded bottom-up creativity and initiative.”
Policy fixes are important, but it is essential to remember the influence we each have —as citizens of the United States and as members of our local communities.
The commission’s report rightly underscores one recommendation above all others: to bring in a fourth founding and a recommitment to our founding ideals, we each must rediscover love of our country and love for one another — our fellow citizens and fellow human beings each endowed with unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness promised so long ago.