Way back in November 2008 we posted “The Great American Experiment”, an essay describing the election of Barack Obama as president as an instance of the triumph of our ongoing experiment in creating true democracy in the United States and the world.
We re-run it today, as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take their oaths of office, with a few updates for 2021.
America is an experiment. From at least the time of its first white settlement, and likely for centuries before that, America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who could buy land, support yourself, marry and create a new life and a new family future in a stable, new land. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.
During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.
On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?
Every time Americans experienced failure, or had the rug pulled out from under them, whether by natural disaster or human disaster (like stock market crashes, Depressions, war, and injustice), they had to stop and think: is it worth it? Do our high expectations just set us up for disappointment? Is it really possible to have a strong, wealthy, powerful, modern country that is also just, fair, free, and equal?
Our momentum from the Founding onward propelled us to believe that it is possible. We took pride in attempting the unlikely, in dedicating ourselves to making the seemingly impossible possible. We did it because we knew our history began when we committed ourselves to the biggest experiment humans can attempt: liberty and justice for all.
America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those Founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.
As we think today about what divides Americans, we think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus. Democracy itself is weak and corrupt–we need a military and religious dictatorship to undo every advance in civil rights and the pursuit of happiness, because somehow freedom and happiness are destroying America.
Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.
But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. A people with near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America.
Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are such Americans, and their election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.