The next era starts now

After Georgia

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Today is the beginning of the next era.

Thanks to the heroic work of organizers and activists in Georgia, most notably Stacey Abrams, the Senate will be wrested from Mitch McConnell’s callous, uncaring hands. Joe Biden will have an historic chance to act boldly should he choose.

And this moment of triumph in Georgia makes me think of something I heard from the activists of another generation in recent years.

I was traveling around the country, back when you could, and again and again I ran into people — mostly women of a certain age and of varied backgrounds — who told me the same thing. They would lean in close and say, I agree with you on all that needs to change, but here’s the thing: I’m old enough to know that this kind of sweeping change doesn’t happen absent war, natural disaster, or upheaval of some kind.

They were pointing to something dispiritingly true. Without World World II, without all those Black soldiers going to Europe to fight a Nazi army and coming home with new questions about their own society, it’s hard to imagine the civil rights movement unfolding in the way it did. Without World War I, without women having to play roles they were seldom permitted to play before, it’s hard to imagine suffrage happening the way it did. Without the horrors of the Civil War, you don’t get those three beautiful amendments that are now the underpinning of egalitarianism in American life. 

What those activists from an earlier time were telling me was that, absent shock and horror and meltdown and disaster, the new era I was championing wasn’t going to happen. And it shook me whenever they would say so. And then 2020 happened.

With that just-departed year of pain, of so much preventable death, of so much suffering, now baked into history, we can safely say that we have lived through the kind of year those women were talking about. One of those grueling times that create a window in history for things to change.

2020 flipped the script from It’s hard to change things to We have no choice but to change things. Joe Biden began his campaign talking about how, under him, nothing fundamentally would change for the powerful. He ended it by repeatedly invoking an FDR-sized presidency. “My view,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the soon-to-be majority leader, told me not long ago, “is if we don’t do bold change, we could end up with someone worse than Donald Trump in four years.”

So the question facing us is: with the year gone by having revealed what it revealed, do we find the gumption to seize what may be the greatest chance to change things in our lifetime? Because here is what it comes down to in the end: we haven’t been living right — not with the planet, not with each other, not with our democratic institutions, not with our health, not with our money. 2020 revealed the moral bankruptcy of an entire system and way of life. And that revelation is, strange as it seems, a kind of gift.

This is one of those times when you get to decide what the next era is. On good days, this era feels like it’s ending. It feels like a coda for many things. And so there is this opportunity now to build the next thing. And the next thing is not certain. The next thing could well be tribal nationalism. The next thing could be Steve Bannon’s Candy Land. But the next thing could also be an age of reform, much as it was a hundred years ago. The next thing could be building institutions that honor and develop the commons. The next thing could be a culture that values what we do together more than what we do alone. And so the promise of this moment is to end one era and bravely build the next one. It begins today.

A longer version of this discussion, in audio form, can be heard on the podcast “Building the Dream,” hosted by Corbin Trent and Saikat Chakrabarti, here.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty