From coronavirus to George Floyd: Why a bad year for America can lead to lasting reforms
The dangerous times we now face are galvanizing the country to better abide by our values and and make 2020 a ripe opportunity for real change.
An American ex-pat friend called the other day to lament the turn of events in the United States. The division, racism and riots she saw play out on her Switzerland television left her feeling that America is becoming ever polarized and not the same home she left 10 years ago.
That’s a feeling a lot of Americans are experiencing now, and it’s certainly understandable given the frightening and tragic scenes across the country aired on replay.
We are facing compounding crises in America, and in important ways these mortal threats are strengthening us as a people, by forcing us to unite and rally around our core values. Coronavirus awakened Americans from a stupor. Our confidence that freedom, democracy and prosperity were somehow destined or ordained, that no threat could penetrate the shell of exceptionalism we imagined around ourselves, was rightly shattered with force exponentially greater than the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
We had been complacent, when a virus our president ignored turned into a pandemic he couldn’t stop. We learned, at far too high a price, that we have work to do, and that an America that rallies around the flag must first rally around its principles. And so the majority of Americans came together, making sacrifices to protect everyone.
That sense of national unity and purpose was the backdrop onto which the latest horrific and unjust killings of black Americans by police were cast. What we have learned in the ensuing weeks is that when we become sensitized to the distress of our neighbors, as we have with coronavirus, we become sensitive to other inequities as well. That keen awareness of our humanity is an opportunity for real change.
The stark images of police and protesters standing in opposition do not reflect the overwhelming agreement among the American people regarding police violence, and specifically the death of George Floyd. Almost 90% of Americans believe that the Minneapolis police officers charged in Floyd's death should face severe penalties. Likewise, Republicans, independents and Democrats broadly agree there’s a police racism problem in the United States and support protests.
Other civil rights issues similarly enjoy cross-partisan support. The majority of Americans want to give voters more choices and make casting a ballot more accessible. This year especially, amid a pandemic, Americans are eager for solutions that give voters options beyond showing up in person, waiting in a long line and standing in a crowd.
Ensure citizens' right to vote
While social change has been wrought through public demonstrations in our history, the most direct way Americans can have their voice heard is at the ballot box. That is why securing our voting rights against an ongoing public health threat has taken on new urgency. Americans want not only to be able to vote safely themselves, but also to ensure that everyone’s right is similarly protected.
That consideration for the rights of all Americans has extended beyond this pandemic and translated into renewed energy to increase voter participation and even end partisan gerrymandering.
This civic rebirth has been going on for several years, but the uniquely dangerous times we now face are galvanizing the country to better abide by our values. And it makes 2020 a ripe opportunity for real change and renewed civic service by a wide swathe of the citizenry.
The evidence of this American renewal is being broadcast into our homes nightly. People of every age, background, race, religion and even political party have turned out to march for a cause they believe in and which they want addressed now. Peaceful protests aren’t just a sign that people are outraged; they are a sign that citizens are engaged and ready to work toward improving their country.
Obstacles to change are daunting
We should not kid ourselves. The challenges that lie before us are daunting. Equal justice, policing reform and fixing our criminal justice system are enormous and seemingly intractable issues that won’t be solved overnight. Similarly, ending gerrymandering, securing elections from interference and reforming our electoral system require combating a rigid system designed by entrenched interests.
Yet, change is possible if we’re united in the common purpose of building America anew for future generations. We cannot let the narrative of division dominate our discourse in this moment. Instead, we have to recognize and focus on the points of agreement — the principles, values and ambitions that unite us as a people. After all, those shared ideals and aspirations are what bind us together, especially at our most desperate moments.
One could be forgiven for taking the cynical view that 2020 has been the worst year in our lifetimes in terms of chaos, fear and destruction. The silver-linings view is that increased awareness resulting from a brighter spotlight on our systemic challenges may embolden more bridge builders, problem solvers and reformers.
And 2020 may be the year that we finally push the boulder of needed reforms over the mountain thanks to a new generation of Americans saying enough.