Like many Americans, I spent last night watching—yet again—the horrifying tragedy of racial violence in our cities. In the span of two traumatic and surreal hours, I sat in my home and watched the murders of three different black men by police officers who seem to many of us to be prodigies of either malice or cluelessness. And, like many Americans I found myself in the familiar oscillation between grief and anger, self-righteousness and empathy, numbness and nausea.
But this time, in the midst of this familiar oscillation I realized that all of these complex emotions had begun to dissolve into a new singularity. And what was it? Helplessness. Having spent hours watching these videos and having spent years thinking about the history of race in America, I sat in my room with only one thought: I have no idea what to do.
My strong suspicion is that I am not alone in this; that for all of our public recriminations and private rage, many Americans are watching the tragedy of our public life unfold with the bewildering experience of having no idea what to do about any of it. If this is true, if we really are experiencing a sort of contagion of helplessness, then this means that in addition to all of the other crises before us, we are in the midst of what may be the most terrifying crisis of them all: a crisis of democratic agency, of believing that our actions on behalf of our common life are powerless.
It is true that this experience is not new—especially for the poor, for women, and for minority communities. But even so, for many in those communities (though by no means all), there remained a conviction that change was possible, that institutions could be reformed, and that—given access—they could employ their agency toward a better world. True, it was aspirational—but that’s just the point. It was an aspiration inspired by the conviction that one’s actions in the world mattered—not just existentially, but effectually.
It is just this conviction of efficacy that seems so alarmingly absent in contemporary America. And this absence, while immediately understandable, is also incredibly perilous.
First, it suggests the collapse of citizenship. One of the original promises of democracy was the promise of agency, that individuals could not only envision a social order, but could also act in the world so as to bring that order into being. And even though this promise was (and is) only selectively applied, the history of America can be told as a story of individuals struggling to lay hold of that promise—both for themselves and their neighbors. But if that promise no longer seems plausible, what does democratic citizenship mean?
Secondly, it encourages the avoidance of leadership. One of the tragedies of our time is that because of this sense of helplessness, many people who do have power that they could use on behalf of their neighbors now plausibly imagine that they do not. That this is so may be seen in the fact that even in the face of such tragedies as those we face today, institutional and community leaders from across races and across regions—men and women who have both the desire and the capacity to bring change—instead take refuge either in symbolic actions or inactive silence. But if we all feel that we are helpless, who among us will take responsibility to help?
Thirdly, because it presages a future of violence. If the history of American civil conflict tells us anything—and it most assuredly does—it tells us that the absence of a belief in the possibilities of peaceful collective action leads not to inaction but to violent action. For all of the horror of this violence, there is a compelling rationality to it: if it is not possible to secure our lives and the lives of our children beside one another, then we will do so against one another. This is no mere apocalyptic alarmism—it is an assured fact. The streets of our cities attest to this at this very moment. But what dark capabilities will we discover when we no longer believe that we are capable of peace?
After a mostly sleepless night, many of my neighbors and I woke to the realization that we are facing a series of profound social crises, and that these crises show no signs of diminishing. And it is precisely for this reason that—even as we engage each of these—we must also deliberately turn our attention to the urgent task of addressing this crisis of democratic action: to recovering our belief that something can be done, that together we can discern what it is, and that together we can do it.