Article Future Democracy

Re-Imagining America

America is the fact, the symbol and the promise of a new beginning. –  Jacob Needleman

As I ponder our future as a society and a people, I have a heavy heart because of the recent tragic murders, (as I write), of Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the mailings of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats by Cesar Sayoc, and the senseless slaying of two elderly African Americans in Virginia. Historically, xenophobia, racism and anti-semitism have been the poisons which have most effectively undermined democracies and prepared the way for authoritarian regimes. We are a divided nation, with a president who endlessly stokes such divisions, while attacking the press and the idea of public truth.

America was founded on three central political ideas, ‘these truths’, as Thomas Jefferson called them: the idea of political and legal equality for human beings; of natural rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and of the popular sovereignty of the people, the consent of the governed. These ideals were a mighty call not only to the citizens of the United States but to people from around the world seeking a better life. Yet from the very beginning and throughout our history we have lived with profound contradictions. As Lepore notes in her recent history of the USA:

A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos. A nation founded on universal rights will wrestle against the forces of particularism. A nation that toppled a hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquility. A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders. And a nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history.1 

The question we face, then, is whether we can accept that our history is one of both high aspirations and noble truths, and of crimes against both the human and natural world. A nation dedicated to freedom while pursuing world empire and domination, a country promoting equality while initially condoning slavery and the destruction of native peoples, a land of opportunity which marginalizes ever-greater numbers of people – such a nation is, indeed, caught in a struggle with itself. But is this not the human condition: are we not each living between the promptings of our higher self, our spirit, and our shadow, revealing that which needs to be understood, integrated and transformed?

I think that each of us is asked to find a new relationship to nature, to the earth and to our environment, to reconnect to the other and the human community and to find a more conscious relationship to the divine world and to our individual spirit. This work is never done, and requires facing, acknowledging and seeking to transform our shadow by listening to the voice of conscience. Why should it be any different for American society, with the shining light of its spirit, its goodness, generosity of heart and practical wisdom and skill, and its arrogance and naked pursuit of wealth and power.

We are individually and collectively in the same boat; how do we become more caring, loving human beings while creating a society which fosters equality, relationship, opportunity, freedom and love? In his marvelous work on the American Soul, Needleman notes this deep connection between the forms of society and our inner soul states:

The hope of America lies and has consisted in the fact that its political ideals and forms of government, its iconic actions and archetypal heroes, reflect in two directions at once – towards the external good of a life of liberty and equality and the reasonable search for a life of community and creative aspiration, and at the same time inwardly toward the search for inner development, the life of  conscience and reason that defines the true nature of humanity and gives life its ultimate meaning.2

As there are moments of crisis in our life history – our evolving biography, which call us to reassessment, to ponder the meaning and purpose of our life, to face ourselves with clarity and conscience – so, too, are there crises in the evolving American story which challenge us to re-imagine what America is and can become. I believe we are again at such a point, in which the ideology of oppression and the forces of fear, hatred, egotism and division threaten to overwhelm us, and to neglect those founding principles and high ideals which marked the origin and development of this once-great nation.

Alexander Hamilton asked a profound question during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, regarding ‘whether societies of men [and women] are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force’.3 He and many of the founding fathers saw the creation of the new nation as an experiment, as an effort to move history in the direction of reason, enlightenment and divine grace. The answer to Hamilton’s question is still open. We are again at a time of great testing, as we were during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the Great Depression leading to the Second World War. It seems that about every 80 years, roughly four generations, we face a profound and existential crisis to American democracy, as Howe and Strauss have pointed out in their generational study of US history, The Fourth Turning.4

It is of course possible to find many turning points in American history, but I believe there are four periods during which the survival and further development of American society was, or is again, threatened. The first of these was during the Revolutionary War period and the founding of the new republic, from approximately 1770 to 1787, from the time when tensions over taxation and representation between the 13 colonies and Great Britain began to grow, through the Revolutionary War, to the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Boston Tea Party

The second major threat to the country’s future was from the 1850s to the formal end of the Civil War in 1866. The challenge to national sovereignty which the secession of the eleven slave-holding states of the Confederacy posed to federal authority was extreme, as was the division over the question of slavery. Between 600,000 and 750,000 soldiers died during the Civil War, more than in all other US wars combined.5 The rancor of the conflict between the North and the South continues to this day, and is reflected in attitudes, speech and politics.

Union Soldiers

A third point of crisis and transformation occurred from 1928 to 1945, starting with the onset of the Great Depression and ending with the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945.

Photo | Dorothea Lange, ‘Migrant Mother’

In each of the three previous periods there were multiple challenges to the nation’s future: first, the quite likely defeat of the new continental army by the British under General Howe and the possible failure of the 13 colonies to form an effective national government after the Revolutionary war. Then, during the Civil War, the threat of the long-term division of the country into two over the question of slavery and its extension into newly acquired territories. And in the early twentieth century, the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, Nazism and authoritarianism, which threatened the future of both Western economic life and the viability of democratic governments.

And, in each of these major crises in American history, it took political and moral imagination to found and then to extend democracy, to deepen the rule of law, and to expand the realm of economic opportunity. It took leaders deeply committed to the founding ideals of freedom, democracy, equality and economic justice; to galvanize the nation into positively responding to the outer and inner challenges of these turning points in our history.

I would say that the fourth period of crisis started in 2001 with ‘9/11’.

Today, it is the combination of US imperial ambitions, the profound levels of income inequality, the oligarchy of corporate wealth and power and the distinct authoritarian tendencies of the Trump administration, which pose a significant threat to our future as a democratic society. I believe we face a crisis of identity; what kind of a country will we be, a political crisis about the nature of democracy and the rule of law, and an economic crisis about the sustainability and equity of our economic system. The Trump administration is the symbol and reality of societal trends which go back decades, and both Democrats and Republicans – indeed, all of us – carry some responsibility for a slide into authoritarianism, for the politics of global domination, for the corruption of our institutions, and for the oligopoly of wealth and privilege which we now have.

Can we again find leaders with the moral imagination, the conscience and the vision to guide the American republic to a new and more noble chapter in its history? Can we overcome the pattern and ideology of oppression, of global domination and of economic exploitation which has characterized so much of our actions and policies in recent decades, and regain the respect of the global community? Can we again become ‘the fact, the symbol and the promise of a new beginning’?9

Toward a Strategy of Hope

The gap between who we say we are as a society and a nation, and how we have actually behaved, has increased dramatically since at least the beginning of the twenty-first century, a soul space of disappointment and disillusionment was created in the national psyche which Trump and the forces of our collective American shadow have exploited to lead us astray.

A strategy of hope begins by seeing ourselves clearly, by self-knowledge, by being awake, and by recognizing the ways in which we as a nation have served the gods of power, prejudice, aggression, pride and material wealth, while proclaiming the values of human freedom, decency, peace, equality and economic opportunity. It means recognizing that we all live within what Parker Palmer calls the ‘tragic gap’ as individuals and a nation:

On the one side of the gap, we see the hard realities of the world, realities which can crush our spirits and defeat our hopes. On the other side of that gap, we see real-world possibilities, life as we know it could be because we have seen it that way. 10

When the experience of this gap is sufficiently painful, we create communities of conscience, groups of the heart, which have always moved our society in a positive direction in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. The young people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who recently founded the #NeverAgain Movement, did just that in fighting for gun control. As David Hogg noted,

When it happened to us, we woke up. We knew we couldn’t wait until we got out of college and settled into jobs. We had to make the world a better place now. It was literally a matter of life and death. 11

So let us honor, join and support the many groups promoting environmental sustainability, freedom of speech and worship, educational choice, racial justice, labor rights, women’s equality, democratic reform, peace and economic justice – groups which make up the vast network of civil society nationally and globally. While we can only see the future in our imagination, out of our experience of life we do know our own yearning for greater inner and outer freedom, our desire for greater equality in rights and political life, and our wish for right livelihood and economic justice.

We can seek help from the good spirit of America, say yes to a new future and follow Rebecca Solnit’s advice:

Dream big. Occupy your hopes. Don’t stop now12


This brief essay is an excerpt from the recently published book, Re-Imagining America: Finding Hope in Difficult Times, by Christopher Schaefer, available from Amazon and fine bookstores everywhere.

About Christopher Schaefer

Christopher Schaefer Ph. D. is a retired adult educator, community development adviser, and social activist living in the Berkshires. He has been on an inner journey for many decades and has had a lifelong involvement with Waldorf education. He is the author of a number of books, most recently, Re-Imagining America : Finding Hope in Difficult Times, available from, and from Amazon and Steinerbooks, after October 1, 2019.

Read more


1  Jill Lapore, These Truths: A History of the United States, W.W. Norton, New York, 2018, p. 786.

2  Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 2002, p. 19.

3  Lepore, These Truths, p. xvii.

4  See the fascinating study by William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, Bantam/Doubleday, New York, 1997. Strauss and Howe call the period in which we now find ourselves the Millennial Crisis, lasting from 2005–2026, having also identified the Revolutionary Period, the Civil War and the New Deal Era as periods of crisis and transition in our history. See pp. 123–138.

5  Avery Craven, Walter Johnson and Roger Dunn, A Documentary History of the American People, Ginn and Company, New York, 1951. See the commentaries on the US Constitution from the Federalist papers, pp. 186–194, and the Constitution with the articles of amendment, pp.194–205.

6 Craven, Johnson, Dunn, A Documentary History, p. 409.

7  Ibid., p. 718.

8  Lepore, These Truths, pp. 433–471.

9  Needleman, The American Soul, p. 5.