When faced with an implacable enemy, two things demand brutal clarity: 1) who the enemy is and 2) who we are. Danielle Allen brilliantly uses the enemy that has now killed over a million Americans as a lesson in that clarity. Let’s put this in perspective. All of our wars from 1776 onward have cost 1,354,664 Americans their lives. Adding to that another 40,031 who are listed as missing—and probably dead—brings the total to 1,394,695. Two hundred and forty six years. That is not to mention an estimated 1,498,240 listed as wounded. These are direct costs in lives. It took the very efficient Coronavirus only a little over two years to kill a million Americans.
In some cases, the enemy was clearly known (Revolutionary War; World War II). In others, not so much (Afghanistan; Iraq). When it was clear, we prevailed; when it was not, the result was, at best, also unclear. Even though many Americans did not support of the war for independence, those who did had enough clarity of purpose to prevail over the greatest military force on the planet. I am old enough to remember our Nation coming together from a position of deep isolationism with great clarity in World War II. We and our courageous allies changed the world. Saved it, more accurately.
Our enemy in the Coronavirus pandemic is a virus. Danielle Allen uses our performance during that challenge to remind us that, instead, we chose each other as the enemy, with catastrophic results. We are still living with that disconnect—and the virus isn’t giving up. Moreover, our experiment as a democratic republic is frayed almost beyond imagining.
Ms. Allen uses this recent history to refocus us on what matters in the course of Our Great American Experiment. We have a great deal to learn and she proves an outstanding guide in pointing out lessons in terms that are impossible to ignore.
In just over a hundred pages, with a breadth and depth hard to imagine in such a condensed package, she offers us a wake-up call and a primer on understanding and saving our democratic republic. This is almost as breathtaking an accomplishment as the challenge it reveals.
An ideal civics class—a desperately needed experience, as she convincingly argues—could be built around this textbook. It would give the student a grounding on the very idea of America, a passion for why that matters, a window on what can go wrong if we are not paying attention, and a renewed call to action on our own behalf. This short book conveys a bookshelf-sized grasp of why we concern ourselves so much with fixing our irresponsible election systems, returning voting rights to the voter, where they belong, and outdistancing the creaking political party collusion to refresh a trajectory that honors our heritage.
In a current column, Arizona Republic media critic, Bill Goodykoontz covers the forthcoming broadcasts of the House Select Committee hearings on the January 6 insurrection. He makes this assertion: “Willful ignorance remains the greatest threat to democracy.” Yes.
Danielle Allen provides us with an antidote to that threat. None too soon, I think most of us would agree. It has never been an easy path and never will be. We can choose to walk it or not. Ms. Allen joins the many fine minds who offer insights essential to the journey.
Now, at age eighty-eight, I am preparing a little chest of books for each of our three grandchildren. Its purpose is to give them access to conversations I want to share with them even though I will no longer be present. Danielle’s work is now included. They will learn why their privilege of being born here is a priceless gift and why some of their most rewarding experiences will lie in how they give back in appreciation. In humility and gratitude. In admission of our weaknesses and enthusiasm for our strengths. By learning, then doing.
I do not own a more profound way of honoring Danielle Allen than to entrust my grandchildren to her guidance in understanding their pathway toward a quality of citizenship commensurate with the benefits they enjoy as participants in Our Great American Experiment.
Al Bell lives in Peoria, AZ and is an activist with Independent Voters for Arizona. Al served on Independent Voting’s Eyes on 2020 National Cabinet, working to get the 2020 presidential primaries open to independents across the country.