A scientist’s reflections on 2020

Can we create a paradigm shift in American governance?

An American flag flies near the U.S. Capitol.

As 2020 comes to a close, I can’t help but feel a small sense of relief and optimism. It’s not because vaccines are arriving, or because President Trump is almost out of the White House, although both certainly help. It’s because for the first time in what feels like forever there is a sliver of hope on the horizon: In the aftermath of immeasurable suffering and decline, we have the unique opportunity to build back better — not incrementally, but by leaps and bounds.

The last time I felt this kind of hope was in 2008. I was 23. It was a hope for change as much as a hope for progress. Today, these still ring true, yet I — like so many Americans — still yearn for something more, something bigger.

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In science, we would call it a paradigm shift. It’s more than a change to this policy or that policy, it’s a clear line in the sand, a fundamental shift in thinking — anything less is no longer enough. I want a kind of change that challenges the underlying assumptions of how a government can work in the 21st century. I want future generations to look back in history and mark when Americans recharted their course after a grave failure to do so in the events leading up to the 2016 elections. After reaching the brink of what our democracy can possibly withstand, are Americans ready to reconsider who and what makes up the political landscape?

A political paradigm shift goes far beyond campaign finance reform or stabilizing markets. To address disproportionately large problems, we will need disproportionally bold solutions. First, we must upend a long held assumption of national pride: We are not the best nation in the world, and we haven’t been for a while. Only in accepting this humility can we chart a new course to make amends and prove ourselves as the resilient and resourceful nation we are.

To address disproportionately large problems, we will need disproportionally bold solutions.

In this transformation, we must critically learn to think not only as Americans but as global citizens. Specifically, we must consider the paradox wherein putting “America first” actually means increasing stability both domestically and internationally. This is not to suggest a means for military dominance, but rather an increased effort in diplomatic, humanitarian and scientific collaboration. In modern times, achieving success on domestic inequities is inextricably linked to the most significant challenges we face globally — challenges such as future global pandemics to human-accelerated climate change. As these mount, our geographic borders will come to mean less and less, particularly as we are more populated, more mobile and more interconnected than ever before. No wall or army could ever prove sufficient in defense — instead we must increase global solutions forged by enhanced cultural, emotional and scientific intelligence across all levels of society and governments. At the same time, we can no longer afford to become so blinded and immobilized by our disagreements that we fail to act in our common interests.

If we want to avoid future economic and public health outcomes, as we’ve experienced in 2020, we must learn from the many lessons presented to us. While an attempted democratic coup and COVID-19 may be the most pressing short-term issues, many equal and larger risks loom ahead. Our failure to act preemptively and in global partnerships has already cost us trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives this year alone. We must act aggressively to correct these courses of action to prevent the worst outcomes ahead.

Change is never easy. It is, however, necessary. While closing the door on 2020 may feel like closing a dark chapter in America’s political history, in reality, it’s not over. If we fail to learn these lessons, we are doomed to repeat them. Even as Trump prepares to exit, over 74 million Americans who voted for him — roughly 22% of all citizens — remain. We have a lot of work to do, and in the words of Albert Einstein, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” May we use the hard-learned lessons of yesterday and today to better the outcome of tomorrow.

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