Benjamin Franklin when asked whether our newly-minted Constitution produced a
republic or a monarchy famously replied “A republic, if you can keep it.”
In Four Threats - The Recurring Crises of American Democracy (St. Martin’s Press, 2020), political scientists Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman explore moments in our history when the fragility of our democracy was on display - our Founders struggle to cobble together competing interests and ideas, the Civil War, the Depression, Watergate, and the civil unrest of the 1960s. These difficult moments reveal four threats - political polarization, racism and nativism, economic inequality, and excessive executive power. Alone or in some combination, they have threatened our survival. But never before have all four combined to form the toxic environment in which we find ourselves today. We have faced and survived threats before, but we have never before confronted the juxtaposition of all four challenges. That is sobering news for those of us concerned to keep the republic.
I fear that Four Threats understates the nature of today’s crisis. Our struggles with tribalism in our politics, a long-overdue reckoning with America’s original sin of racism, the large and growing economic and opportunity divide that is manifestly clear to all who would see it, and the concentration of power (and its correlate the growing disconnect between the governed and the governors) are not occurring in a vacuum. We live in a time of enormous uncertainty and instability. We, the people, are in the midst of a global pandemic, experiencing weather and climate changes of staggering magnitude and consequence, living with terrorist activities and mega-corporations that transcend national borders and call the efficacy of our system of national and global governance into question. How much more uncertainty and change can we tolerate?
And what is the nature of leadership required for this crossroads between a world we have lost and a new one not yet found? Certainly not authoritarianism with the false promise of relief from our discomfort, our not knowing the way forward, and our not having a sense of control over our lives. As we have seen across history and in some quarters of our country today, even in a democracy when it is our duty and right to be the source of power, some are willing to sacrifice it in exchange for the illusion of safety. A leader for today doesn’t make false promises but rather invites us into a conversation to identify our challenges and differences. She helps us learn to live in the search for answers where the questions may not yet be clear. Some of what we have known as our republic no longer serves us. Some of what will serve us in the future doesn’t exist yet. Our republic must be reinvented for our time, much as our forebears invented it for theirs. They carved a new reality out of the circumstances of their day. We honor them best by doing so with the same curiosity and agility that led to the birth of our democracy and can, if we can keep it, lead to its rebirth. Being those leaders is the call of the day.