The American Experiment

We’re looking for big answers from big thinkers this week, in the first episode of our series on the American Condition.

Pick one: the American Experiment (A) has run its course, (B) is catching its breath after a half-century of agitation and much liberation, (C) it ran aground overseas as an empire of chaos in wars we weren’t supposed to win, and didn’t, or maybe (D) the long shot, that in 2017 the American Experiment has gone deeply, desperately improvisational to shake a losing streak, maybe to find a reinvented self.  Nobody’s got a simple name for our disorder, this dysfunctional funk in the confident old crucible of “freedom, opportunity, power.”

Our guests this week—the philosopher and lay preacher Cornel West and Brazilian legal theorist  Roberto Mangabeira Unger—have been co-conspirators for over 20 years . This year, they’ve been tinkering in the laboratory of Harvard University, where they’re teaching a blockbuster class on American democracy. But neither man is willing to limit himself to the constraints of his academic field (“fields are for cows,” they say.)

Unger & West in the classroom at Harvard (illustration by Susan Coyne)


Instead, they’re asking big questions about “how to revitalize the Democratic possibilities within the empire” as Cornel West puts it. For him, the possibilities are, unfortunately, rather limited. West takes Bernie Sanders’s view, that ” the Democratic Party elites [just] want first class seats on the Titanic.” Outside mainstream electoral politics, the threat of violent repression—the kind that led to the assassinations of Martin, Malcolm and Medgar—is still all too real for West.

But Unger, on the other hand, has a more utopian take. The Brazilian theorist, not unlike the Frenchman de Tocqueville, believes that “the most important attribute of the United States is its extraordinary vitality. It seethes with human energy and hope.”

Unger thinks that we need more than just equality of conditions. He thinks the left needs to emphasize— in pseudo-Trumpian terms—”bigness” in its political vision.

The historical objective is bigness, what I call a shared bigness. It’s our ascent. It’s the bringing up of human life, of the life of the ordinary man and woman, to a higher plane of intensity, scope, and capability and the method is change in the structure of society in its institutions and in particular in the institutions of the market economy and of Democratic politics.

Unger’s own political project can seem a bit unwieldy on first listen, so producer Frank Horton helped us break it down into a handy four point chart. Hang it up at the office of your local progressive org, and let’s get to work.

Click here to read the full unabridged conversation between Chris, Roberto and Cornel.


Guest List
Cornel West
preacher, philosopher, and author of Black Prophetic Fire.
Roberto Mangabeira Unger
professor at Harvard Law School and author of The Religion of the Future.

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