How often do nations have a chance for a fresh start? Rarely. These moments tend to come after wars or disasters, after an interruption suspending normal life. And when you look back, you see that these fresh starts determined the path the nation will take in the decades that follow.
After the Civil War, the United States had a chance to build a more racially just society. America made some strides but, overall, blew that chance and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since. After World War II, the U.S. had a chance to build a more stable world order. Americans rose to that moment, creating a set of global institutions that bound the world closer together.
When the COVID-19 virus subsides, we will have another of these fresh starts. Daily life was interrupted, but we’ve also had a chance to experience something together, to see concretely how interdependent we are.
The pandemic has been like an X-ray, exposing core problems that haunt the nation. They can be divided into three interrelated streams. First, there is the civic crisis, the vicious polarization and institutional decay that makes our politics dysfunctional, including the Jan. 6 Capitol breach that threatened democracy itself. Then, there is the social crisis, the fragmentation of society into insular clusters, the decline of social trust, and the decay of many communities. Then there is the spiritual crisis, the tripling of depression rates, spike in suicides and addictions, and emergence of multiple generations with no faith in our systems or in each other.
During this pause, it became clear we can’t address each of these crises in isolation. They must be tackled at once. For example, you can’t weave communities together at the local level if politicians are ripping society apart at the national level. On the other hand, you can’t have national repair if everybody is angry, isolated and alienated.
Over the years, thousands of organizations have either reoriented themselves or come into being with the purpose of healing the nation — to resolve our civic, social or spiritual crisis. Philanthropy, too, mobilizes behind them.
Some work on civic education and renewal, such as iCivics and Citizen University. Some work on bridge-building and expanding service, such as Weave, the Listen First Project, Bridge USA, Convergence and Service Year Alliance. Some work on political renewal, such as Issue One and Represent Us. Some even work on media renewal, such as Citizen Data and the American Journalism Project. There is a great array of organizations, all dreaming the same dream.
The problem is, these efforts are dispersed. They lack the infrastructure social movements need — central gathering spots, information-sharing networks, innovation centers, pooled resources, common messages that reinforce each other. Imagine you walked into a town that had a lot of doctors but no hospital, no place where practitioners could join their efforts. This makes it harder for other sectors — business, religious and military — and individual Americans to join in.
It’s time to turn this dispersed array of boats into a common flotilla, to link them together to multiply their effect. Fortunately, a new Partnership for American Democracy — inspired by the framework developed by the Our Common Purpose report commissioned by the Academy of Arts & Sciences — is weaving together these groups and developing “sustainable democracy goals” in advance of the 250th anniversary of our nation’s birth in 2026. After all, if we can’t agree on what success is across these interlocking crises, we can’t achieve it.
As this infrastructure is being developed, so are networks of donors to coordinate giving, youth networks to welcome in new leaders, even community congresses, so that the different organizations in each town are linked into collaborative systems.
We need to educate young Americans on our ideals and institutions and how they can become active in civic, social and spiritual repair. We need to establish a culture in which a year or more of national service becomes a normal rite of passage for everyone. We need to ensure that our politics are fair and transparent, so we can attract the public servants the nation needs. We need to build trust in information, so Americans can work from shared facts. We need to turn down the heat and honor differences without disunion. And the country needs a spiritual revival to restore its soul.
Division haunts this nation. We have a lot of diffuse efforts to heal these divisions. We have no system to strengthen and unite them. If we can build that, then when America’s 250th birthday swings around, in just five years from now, we will be able to rest confident in the knowledge that America is not a nation in decline, it is a nation still rising and inspiring the world.
John M. Bridgeland is co-founder and CEO of the COVID Collaborative and former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush. Timothy P. Shriver is chairman of Special Olympics and UNITE. The authors are on the National Leadership Council of the newly launched Partnership for American Democracy. Follow on Twitter @PFADemocracy.