The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution set the founding purpose and values for our country. However, these national charters contained tragic compromises. White supremacy and slavery contaminated the vision of freedom and equal rights for everyone. Through civil war, constitutional amendments, and mass movements, Americans have extended our founding vision to more citizens.
We hold this truth to be self-evident, a better America requires building a democratic culture of interdependent responsibility for all Americans' well-being.
The Purpose of a Declaration of Interdependence
Before the viral and racial injustice pandemics, we have suffered decades of partisan conflict. Challenges facing our nation are viewed through a partisan filter. Both parties and most politicians have been carriers of the disunity virus infecting our body politic. We need to vision an interdependent ideal future. Surviving in our interconnected world of technology, trade, finance, travel, warfare, climate change, amid pandemics of viruses, profound economic inequality, and racial injustice requires affirming our human and structural interdependencies. As Molly Roberts writes, “The problem is everything is connected, [but] despite all that, we are not connected enough.” A Declaration of Interdependence moves toward a vision of collaboration. The Founders wanted their progeny to continually “make a more perfect union." We are their progeny.
Updating the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence was a call for action to overcome British tyranny. The Founders educated and inspired their peers to fight for their freedom. In the Constitution, they defined a government for the American people to achieve justice, security, safety, domestic tranquility, and the common good. Contradicting their own vision, many founders couldn’t resolve their dependence on exploiting and enslaving other Americans, or the disunity between slave and non-slave states. Nonetheless, they defined unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Notably, the French in their later revolution substituted "fraternity," or interdependence, for the pursuit of happiness.
The Founders valued the independence of citizens, but they could not have imagined our challenges today. A Declaration of Interdependence can start aligning our need for productive connections with the values and purpose of our charters. The dual pandemic morbidities of virus and racial injustice can help awaken our often-denied interdependencies.
Forces Undermining Interdependence
The media distracts citizens’ attention with "breaking news" and spectacles. Disregarding Founders foretelling that democracy required an educated public, school districts eliminate required civics, and colleges drop required American history. Sixty-one percent of Americans cannot name the three branches of government. Religious membership is plummeting. Though today’s newspapers are more objective than those earlier in our republic, the latest media spin, isolated fact, and indignity don’t contribute to constructive civic deliberation.
Lobbying for businesses, professional, or special interests expands in a divided America. The Constitution intends that when interests compete, the general welfare will emerge. But the Founders warned that oligarchy would undermine the common good. Today the wealthy take an increasingly large percentage of the economy’s rewards. Economic and racial inequality, food insecurity and suffering swells, with many citizens working several jobs to survive (before the pandemic collapsed the economy), cramped in overcrowded rooms, or on the street. It is hard to conceive of our human interdependencies in a nation of racial inequalities in policing and the administration of justice, and when white people achieve greater health and live longer than communities of color.
Interdependencies to be addressed in a Declaration
One does not have to be a psychologist as I am, to understand that happiness comes largely from connections in family, friendship, intimate relationships, neighborhoods, spiritual communities, and work. Few people can be happy alone. Being productively connected forms identity and personhood, and builds resilience and emotional strength. Human connection is essential for a meaningful life and the full potential of love. If one lives a privileged life, not aware of others suffering or denied their rights, one’s life experience is limited. Awareness of our human interdependence with others opens our world of experience. Examples are the outpouring of love for frontline workers during the viral pandemic and the mass multiracial protests against police and white supremacist murders of Black citizens.
Labor and capital are interdependent. Neither exists alone, though they continually fight. Labor and capital also depend on citizen-funded infrastructures: roads, bridges, ports, telecommunications, national laboratories, stockpiles, and agencies of public safety, defense, international relations, health, justice, commerce and finance.
Labor and capital pursue different interests. But different interests can co-exist between interdependent parties. The highest measures of happiness, health and wellbeing are not in our country, according to the OECD, the organization of the 36 wealthiest economic powers in the world. The high measures of social wellbeing are in Scandinavian countries, where labor and capital have invested years learning to work together productively for their national welfare.
Pandemics show the interdependency of different levels of government. Lacking foresight and systems thinking, some states delay in taking protective measures. Perhaps those states have citizens and governors who value "states rights" independence. Viruses don’t care about ideals of independence.
Effective governance requires that local, state, and federal governments work together. Government is a tool of the American people. When governments inhibit each other, the purpose of government itself is subverted, as when a state prevents a locality from setting its own pandemic protections for its citizens, or prevents a locality from removing Confederate statues. Governments should be partners for the national purpose: the general welfare, domestic tranquility, safety, and the blessings of liberty for the American people.
Pandemics reveal an absence of national strategy. Without collaborative interdependence of governments and departments, citizens’ and the nation’s sicknesses increase.
Our racial justice challenge is reawakened by yet more police murders of African Americans. Redesigning public safety requires trust, shared work and planning between citizens, government and police. Structural racism produces reduced health outcomes for African Americans, showing the interdependence of laws, attitudes and health. As bioethicist Osagie K. Obasogie writes, “pandemics have a political economy behind them”. Achieving the Constitutional purposes of “general welfare” and “domestic tranquility” requires a national strategy of interdependent collaboration of governments and citizens.
Climate warming produces wildfires, melting ice sheets, droughts, tornadoes, floods, decline of biodiversity and unseen damage to our planet. No nation alone can correct these consequences and go its own way unfazed. Nations work interdependently for the common planetary good, or suffer together the results of delusional independence.
Unstudied plants might yield new medicines, but these biodiversity options decline as humans destroy natural environments. Half of the rainforests, one of the world's major oxygen producers, are gone. Two-thirds of wetlands have been destroyed. Sixty-percent of the world’s wildlife has been eliminated since 1970. Supposedly beneficial urban and materialistic "development" degrades the sustainability of natural systems. Zoonotic diseases where pathogens jump from animals to humans, such as AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and COVID-19 — as research suggests — become more possible. Ecosystems are thrown out of balance by unthinking human disruptions. Rodents, bats, snakes, monkeys, mosquitos and ticks live closer to humans, and natural predators minimally cannot migrate or go extinct entirely. One country reacting to a crisis can not address international ecosystem disruptions. Deep knowledge experts call for a One Health strategy encompassing the whole system of human-animal-environment interdependency.
Nations are interdependent with both allies and enemies. Nations assert their apparent independence at their peril. Pursuing national interests requires wise strategies to avoid new vulnerabilities. It seems strong and patriotic to assert national independence, but nuclear weapons, climate disaster, and pandemics require countries working together for mutual survival. There are nine nuclear nations. A nuclear exchange could produce what scientists call "nuclear winter," a global dust cloud obscuring the sun for as long as 10 years. No agriculture, no life.
A Declaration of Interdependence can describe the purpose and strategic principles for the sane development of our country to fulfill our values of freedom and equal rights, in a sustainable world. It is a step toward a vision for our country to address our challenges. It might spark a national nonpartisan conversation. Hope is created when citizens think and act in new ways. When citizens change, society changes. John Adams said the American Revolution was not when colonists took up arms against the British. He believed the American Revolution took place in the minds of the colonists when they grasped they could take action to be free.
Citizens and governments must work interdependently for the common good. During our tragic Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called us “with malice toward none, with charity for all” to our “better angels”…”we are friends, we can not be enemies."
We must write a Declaration of Interdependence for our time. It will be a small step to a new and better America.
Richard Margolies is a clinical psychologist, and consults to leaders on strategic thinking. He is on the Board of the Lincoln Group of DC, and leads its Lincoln Study Group. He is the Director of the Visioning a Better America citizens' conference that will be held in Congress. Visioning A Better America can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.