The Creative Power of Crises

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By Jonathan Laurence

The ongoing wave of protests in the United States has granted the American public a chance to repair its original sin: that Black lives have long been treated with insufficient respect. This time the fires were “made in America.” But the challenges and dynamics are familiar to political observers in diverse societies across the democratic world.

Whether one endorses a vision of American “greatness” or not, its birthright meant less for millions of Americans who have felt unsafe from discrimination and abuses of power for generations. For over fifty years, increasing access to political participation and social rights was overshadowed by inadequately enforced civil rights. Unequal chances at education and income were joined with a terrifying reality of extrajudicial executions by law enforcement and armed whites who “stood their ground.” Even the first term of the first African-American president was marred by events like the arrest of a black professor entering his own home and the murder of Trayvon Martin returning from a trip to the store.

The political mobilization of 2020 has also been a balm for opponents of the recent upending of American political norms. Throughout four browbeaten years, no single affront had ever provoked a unified outcry. The institutional stalemate and polarization shook the balance of powers to the core. Neither Congress nor the Supreme Court meaningfully checked the authority asserted by the Trump presidency. The death of George Floyd mobilized an inert and dispirited political opposition to participate in protest and demand change, propelled by the pent-up energy of the last months.

Covid-19 has been described as a comorbidity of ailing democracies, accelerating the decline by attacking fissures and fault-lines. The virus brought into relief a range of imminent threats to democracy. Alongside racial inequities and widening social divisions, a class-based health care and educational systems remains prevalent, and there is little compensation for the ongoing sacrifices made by “essential workers.”

Facing such intractable issues, it bears recalling that the modern Western state originated in times of deep crisis and conflict. Epidemics in 16th century Venice helped drive government regulation of public health and social policies. The Depression and Second World War were followed by grateful acknowledgments like the G.I. Bill and a welfare apparatus that accounts for a quarter of government spending.

The need for sustained, high-level dialogue to discuss solutions across partisan, cultural and religious divides is more urgent than ever. What kind of State will the Coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement leave behind? Will a universal income or public health care become as self-evident as a Social Security pension? How will new awareness of a class of essential workers change who is meant by “We the People”? The answers to these questions will resonate across the United States and overseas, like the civil rights movements before it. “I Can’t Breathe” is chanted in protests calling for accountable government around the world.

Last century’s urban policies were allegorical and simplistic — Broken windows policing, three strikes and you’re out, the war on drugs, an eye for an eye — and they incurred an inordinate socio-economic cost. Legislatures are now pushed to examine the old practices with new eyes. Cities everywhere are reconsidering how to thoughtfully preserve their monuments and their past. The alternative to dialogue is to ponder instead the litany of 21st-century indicators flashing red while the ship went down: incarceration and death penalty disparities; police militarization; mass shootings; the diverging Electoral College and popular vote; the blending of reality television and politics. After decades of debate over regime change elsewhere, emerging national movements signal a return to the work of improving democracy at home, and call for harnessing the resources of structured dialogue to support this process.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

Jonathan Laurence is Executive Director of Reset Dialogues and Professor of Political Science at Boston College. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on international affairs.

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