A new series from Times Opinion exploring bold ideas to revitalize and renew the American experiment.
By Ezekiel Kweku
Mr. Kweku is the Opinion politics editor.
This article originally appeared in the Opinion Today newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it in your inbox each weekday morning.
America used to be a young country. And in its youth, it changed as it grew, the idea of what was American as malleable as the idea of what was America. The country expanded its borders, abolished slavery, broadened the franchise; waves of immigrants reshaped and revised America’s character; the government added and dropped functions, amending the Constitution to fit the times. It was a restless experiment.
That restless spirit was reflected in the country’s pomp and pageantry, too. For more than 150 years, the United States had no official national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” shuffled among “Hail, Columbia” and “America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee)”; the design of the flag shifted with the states and with fashion.
But America is not young anymore. Whereas it was once spry and excitable, it is now creaky and soft. The country that passed Prohibition and created Social Security now spends decades dithering over how large a role the government should play in health care. The country that went to the moon shrinks at the challenges presented by climate change. Its bold and expansive political imagination has atrophied.
There are, of course, reasons for this settling. As the historian Daniel Immerwahr argues in a guest essay, hard partisanship makes it difficult to create coalitions for sweeping changes. Wars, which once smashed through gridlock, no longer lead to collective action.
Not all of the big changes were completely — or even ambiguously — good. The economic boom of the industrial age was fueled by the blood and sweat of exploited workers; the country’s westward expansion came at the expense of Native Americans. But America in its youth was a country confident and unafraid to confront the future. What if it could recover that spirit of invention and restlessness, the risk-taking that formed this country? What would it change? What could it be?
This is the idea behind Snap Out of It, America!, a new series from Times Opinion. It will present not a single, cohesive vision but an array of ambitious ideas from across the ideological spectrum to revitalize and renew the American experiment.
The series opens with two pieces, alongside Mr. Immerwahr’s diagnosis of the stagnant American spirit. The writer and activist Astra Taylor outlines the case for total debt forgiveness — a debt jubilee inspired by the Bible and Reconstruction — and the historian Jonathan Holloway envisions a bold way to bind together our jostling, multicultural society: a year of compulsory national service as a civic rite of passage.
Snap Out of It, America! will run on Wednesdays throughout the summer. I hope you’ll find food for thought and fuel for your own political imaginations.
Ezekiel Kweku is the Opinion politics editor. He joined the Times in 2020 from New York magazine.
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