America means many things to many people. It can elicit hope, and pride, and pain. It represents what it seeks to accomplish, and it embodies the true impact of its actions. It is a nation atop a vast countryside, formed around grand concepts, and continuously built anew over a checkered past.
In a place so large, in scale and ambition, what impact can one, or ten, or a thousand people have on its course? What change might you, or I, be capable of affecting, over any amount of time?
That there may never be satisfactory answers to such questions, does not absolve any one of us from the duty of asking and the obligation of answering. There is no reprieve from the responsibilities that citizens have to their communities and to each other — simply as neighbors and fellow Americans.
We who respect the enormous challenge of living together honestly and peacefully, cannot withhold our talents from noble causes which engender tolerance and aim for equality. Such principles are achievable, I believe, if we are able and determined to work together.
Yet, right now, cooperation seems to be the last thing anyone is willing to stomach. How dare collaboration be entertained when the power to impose one’s will on a dillusional opposition is so close within our grasp?
Amid such rancor and dysfunction — when turmoil feels not only pervasive but foundational — it’s natural to think we are witnessing the inevitable demise of an ill-fated democracy, and it’s logical to attribute disunion to the nation’s founding and repeated failures.
The evils of the past weigh mightily, but I believe the bulk of the blame for the rampant incivility and the political division that we see today, should be squarely placed on a corrupt culture in America.
I do not claim culture to be a monolith, or contend that there is an ‘ideal’ culture to aspire. Culture in America is a diverse, evolving patchwork of traditions and behaviors — not a single entity or practice.
Yet there is an ebb and flow to daily life here, and the collective attitudes and aggregate impact of all the interations in society establish a character at its critical mass. Right now, at this center point, is the accumulation of all the pain we inflict and all the heinous acts we allow in our name, which is steadily and methodically corrupting and dissolving social bonds.
So, it is clear to me, because culture is at the heart of so many of our issues, that the political turmoil we face will not be resolved with a few fresh faces in Congress or a new-found majority in the courts. And it is naive to think a single election or law can save us from our historical transgressions and contemporary failings, if ultimately we have not changed ourselves.
True healing can only come through comprehensive changes in culture — initiated and passionately carried out by the people. We must remake how we care for each other, how we satisfy civic duties, and how we discuss, deliberate, and determine how to live on this land.
Most of the changes necessary to meet this harrowing moment and to reinvigorate democratic society, won’t require new laws or policies. It can and will require caring about what daily life looks for people across this land. It must include establishing the principles upon which to build a common foundation. And it should involve looking toward and striving to establish a healthy modern populace that is capable of resolving its differences and of honest self governance.
For a nation of millions, such a monumental and comprehensive undertaking is an evolution — of perspective, of expectations and goals, of our understanding of tolerance and respect, and of how we practice discourse and politics.
It is effectively: an evolution of democracy. A shift toward the principles essential for humans to live a dignified life, and a shift away from the practices and investments that produce too few gains toward equality.
It is our duty — in the spirit of bettering life for those here now, and those yet to arrive — to reform the bonds of our society and our communities. Investments of this kind, may, if carried out with honest intention, afford us with an unprecedented opportunity: to establish an enduring way of life, where all people can strive and succeed together.
Unfortunately, society cannot shift overnight. Change can only be layered on top of the present, building new memories and traditions that slowly overtake the weight of the past. In this way, people and cultures are dynamic and capable of extraordinary change, through which society grows and evolves.
One characteristic to prioritize — one of America’s great strengths and one of the foundational layers from which we should grow democracy — is cultural diversity.
It takes numerous perspectives to honestly appraise situations, diagnose complex causes, and develop robust solutions. Without a rich variety of people, cultures, traditions, approaches, and ideas, change is impossible.
That’s because evolution is not a process of people transforming into wholly different creatures, but populations benefiting from and embracing the existing behaviors and values that contribute to the advancement of the whole. Variety in our ranks makes for a more dynamic testing ground, and diversity – through its many forms and granularities – makes us more resilient.
America is a land of stubborn survivors. Throughout history, people here have devised ingenious tactics and the means of surviving against all odds and challenges. Diversity has made those successes more frequent — more common — because no group has all the answers.
There is much to learn from our past and from our fellow neighbors — people from walks of life who carry all manner of experience and wisdom. And it’s critical we start doing so immediately, because stress is pervasive and manifestly present in our lives.
Many Americans are facing — some of them for the first time – increased instability and a scarcity of resources and opportunity. All who believe their future is threatened are bound to react — sometimes irrationally — even if the difficulty of their circumstances pale in comparison to others.
Calming the political climate and improving the state of our social system will depend on whether we are willing and able to consider the perspectives of others, learn from their insights and share our own, and, ultimately, whether we are willing to embrace the benefits of diversity — the many that there are.
Popular strength grows steadily with each shared commitment and every good hand put to task. Diversity helps us both understand the task before us and select the best remedies most likely to improve life for all.
While there is potential to dream and build something new and potentially lasting, there will be no greatness worth celebrating until racism and sexism, and all forms of oppression, are beaten back toward extinction.
No effort to fix politics can ignore these forces, and hundreds of years of subjugation and oppression cannot be whisked away with a few laws, even if accompanied by apologies and affirmations of respect. Tending such deep wounds demands mass education, reparation, and wholehearted reconciliation. These things take time.
Changes are required not only to practices but beliefs, making this a multi-generational task, acheivable only with committed widespread support for their need, and the sustained will to carry them out.
That includes dismantling and rebuilding systems and institutions that have been used, and are being used, to keep people down. If they are not built from the ground up with mechanisms to ensure they cannot be used to oppress, they can always be a tool for bad intent.
We are witnessing this now. Precedents, norms, and decorum are not robust enough guardrails to contain corruption and hate. Lines must be better marked and enforced, which is especially important for injustices stemming from the cultural realm, more than simply the result of economic and physical circumstances.
Setting new rules in real-time is messy, but society is reckoning with what constitutes racism, sexism, hate, and oppression — and how to stop it. People who have resolved to expect more — and demanding it now, not later — are publicly setting and trying to uphold new standards, new boundaries, and unprecedented levels of personal and institutional accountability.
When progress is quick, the shifting of rules and expectations can be uneven, at times petty, or overly aggressive. Yet, considerably more frustrating for individuals, and ultimately more damaging to society, is absorbing hate and injustice over a lifetime.
While it’s true that other forms of oppression might be easier to address, or easier to find a lasting consensus, there are no problems more fundamental in American history, or as pervasive a cancer in our culture today, than racism and sexism. We cannot address one while leaving the other for another day.
No progress will endure, no unity will sustain, until we resolve to eradicate and unweave hate from our culture. Without this critical investment, and the sustained conviction to see it through, there can be no just and lasting peace, and no equality — an ends to which so many have dedicated their lives to achieve.
On an equal footing is the only honest way forward. That starts by universally seeing each other as people — imbued with the same right to live free as we do now, or as we hope to someday enjoy. There can be no hurdles, no exceptions, and no equivocations which limit membership to the club of democracy and the abundance of this place.
Yet that is the basis of the legislation being pedaled today in the name of ensuring strength and prosperity. At their core, these acts try to convince us to limit access to rights and resources. If they are not our neighbors, or honest brokers, or even people at all — the logic extends — then they don’t deserve our compassion or support because they are not ‘us’.
There are many compromises that must be made in democratic society, but excluding people from the processes of democracy and the benefits of society should not be a viable position. Exclusion is weakness and state-sponsored negligence is treason. That’s what is being allowed to fester in our culture by not definitively rebuking policies and rhetoric that make false enemies of neighbors, friends, and political foe.
These trends, I contend, are not simply a callous form of tribal politics determined to secure votes and electoral majorities, but a product of culture itself. A corrupt culture working in opposition to democracy and willing to benefit from the accumulation of power no matter the means used to attain it.
The truth of such a culture can be seen in the way people treat strangers; demonstrated in the respect, tolerance, latitude, trust, and empathy offered — or not — to each and every soul, regardless of who they are or who they appear to be.
What courtesy or demeanor do you offer? Do some people, just by how you’ve classified or prejudged them, not deserve your best demeanor, or all the freedoms and opportunities possible in America?
Democracy affords people the chance to influence the rules and decisions that govern their lives. The moment we restrict rights or hinder a person’s ability to become a part of society — in any capacity — we are choosing an unequal way of life with predetermined winners and losers. This demonstrates a willingness, or the direct intent, to erode democracy and abandon the responsibility to care for each other.
Without equality and fairness — centered in our hearts and expressed in our laws — there will be no end to the turmoil in which we are mired today. It will forever bubble, and ultimately burst, any and all the gains we make to better our lives, because it will have always been, progress for some, at the expense of too many fellow Americans.
Fairness, in this context, though, does not mean identical, and calls for equity should not aim for homogeneity. America is not one culture, nor should it be. We live in a complex world, amid constant change, facing the sum of all the choices made by people, and by groups and governments on our behalf.
This suggests, to me, that there will always be inequality, if not simply because of sheer complexity, then because there is more than one way to measure a good life. Freedom imbues the latitude of choice.
Yet, if that’s true, then many people live less free than others with far fewer opportunities and prospects. Some people may simply have no choice at all — often caused by the weight of society and circumstance, and not their own making – essentially meaning they live with a deficit of freedom through no fault of their own.
For those in such dire straits, this is not a land of opportunity, but a place of interminable struggle, characterized by a culture complicit in countless misdeeds and undelivered promises. It is thus, a place of opportunity for some, but not all, and of suffering for others — forever, and always, too many.
As we aspire to maintain — or rebuild, or perhaps build for the first time — a land of free people, what foundation of service and support must society provide? What needs must be ensured for every person? What level of stability and comfort must be attained to consider our lives to be open to our own making?
Certain needs come to mind quickly: food, shelter, education, and work. These fundamental needs identified by psychologists are often put forth when discussing economic justice and the social safety net. Yet, so much can be lost or unaccomplished in the varying quality or execution put forth to meet these needs.
So, I contend that it is critical to enumerate the needs of individuals in a way that demonstrates its importance to their capacity to serve as thoughtful agents in command of a democratic society. The needs of individuals are ultimately society’s needs. Through this lens, I believe the scope of inalienable rights for all people must extend to ensure: nutrition, comfort, knowledge, truth, agency, and autonomy.
We need not simply calories, but the nutrients for our bodies and minds to fully develop. We don’t just need a roof over our heads, but a place to call home to manage the mess and milieu of our lives. We need not simply opinions, but good ideas and constructive proposals, rooted in facts, that can be executed for the good of our lives and our communities, as we see fit.
Rights viewed from this perspective — from the elemental needs of citizens — leaves less latitude to water down the offerings upon which individuals require to build their lives and a populace needs to advance democracy. Such a promise — to provide and care for each other — may simply be called fairness, or love. Some view it as equity. I would describe the goal as: providing a true chance for all to live well, despite different footings, faults, and futures.
No human, or their circumstances, is the same as any other. However, the inevitability of such differences, and of inequality across classes and communities, does not absolve the people of a free nation from the responsibility of providing stability for all.
Fairness — which honors the equality of all people — is a true cornerstone from which America can construct an enduring culture and an advanced democracy.
Another critical principle to establish and uphold is living within the limits of the Earth, because no species has the capacity to succeed, much less advance, without a stable environment. Maintaining stability and decreasing suffering must be a key metric of democracy.
This land has abundance, but it is not infinite, which means humanity can negatively influence its processes and health. To deny that we can impact the environment denies our responsibility to it and to each other, and turns a blind eye to the resulting suffering, and ignores the truth of our common fate on this planet.
Instability itself — whether caused by climate change, disaster, or war — is not a science issue, and it should not be distilled to cost-benefit analyses or couched in political priorities. It is the flux of all life — all the animals, plants, and ecosystems — and all of our bodies and minds too. The whole world is one beautifully complex and infinitely intertwined system reliant on all the pieces competing and balancing each other.
That makes, what humans are facing now — in the loss of species diversity and dramatic changes in climate and weather — an existential crisis. One that spans from the soil, to our genes, to future generations that will have no choice but to call what we leave them: ‘home’.
The lack of political will to substantially mitigate our impact on the planet, or to minimize the undue burden which the most vulnerable bear, indicates to me that we do not have a healthy culture. For if a society is maintained through exploitation — both of the natural world and fellow peoples — it is in conflict with itself. And for what: so that a powerful few can hold dominion over the rest of life on the planet?
Part of resolving the political and cultural turmoil we face today, includes vastly improving our relationship with all natural processes and reducing our negative impact upon, and imbalance with, the environment.
Balance will not be easy to maintain, yet it must be the goal. Stability enables people to excel, it allows culture to flourish, and it helps society to advance and evolve — which is needed now more than ever.
Democracies, if they are to succeed, must acknowledge the responsibility to provide stability, and hold its people and ambition to account for the sake of the whole system upon which it stands.
Stability, however, cannot come at the expense of justice. If society is not fair, if justice is only for the rich or white, and if the pursuit of equality is abandoned or outright denied, then our world is in a state of passive, negative peace rather than an active state of positive progress. We must not simply have less uproar, but live sustainably and justly, and continually recommit to providing all people with the opportunity to secure a better life.
Right now, too many people are indifferent to the cost that this culture and economic instability have on the most vulnerable of our neighbors. Indifference seems to be the default position, as if freedom simply means each person is solely responsible for their own lives.
One way or another, we all pay for the pain of our neighbors, and that pain is often the result of the immense pressure culture and economics put on people trying to maintain or advance their standing. So to say that it is solely each person’s responsibility, to fend for what they need, is a fallacy.
Expensive schools, predatory lending, mounting debt, depressed wages, and limited access to health care and child care — these are just a few of the economic pressures that keep people too burdened and too stressed to engage in public life. It’s not laziness or apathy that keeps people sidelined, many are simply overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion and dislocation.
The practice of democracy should be available to all, no matter your innate ability, the career you chose, or the job or family you have. We must establish a culture that rewards personal choice without a corresponding civic disenfranchisement. We must foster a passion for participation and concurrently establish economic and social systems that do not severely uncut people’s opportunity to better their lives and community through service.
I ask you to reflect: Do you have power, or do you feel powerless? Do you have the time or energy to contribute to real change in your community or to the trajectory of the country? Are you able to be part of an active solution to today’s social and political turmoil?
A nation is not a democracy simply because it’s classified as a republic, it has open elections, or it claims to serve the will of the people. Democracy is not present just because votes are accurately tallied, unions are allowed, or personal rights are upheld. Laws and policies allow these things, but they are a passive setting and not a marker of the active state of affairs.
Democracy is only in force when people truly have the means to influence the decisions that affect their fate, when they really believe in public institutions, and when they actually take ownership for the impact of their collective actions. Democracy is the presence of sustained action and robust accountability by a powerful, independent, and ever-evolving populace.
Our culture — and specifically its stability and just nature — matter a great deal to whether or not such a society is possible, and whether or not people have the opportunity to participate and impact their world.
Making sure that democracy is fully in practice and addressing every single reason why that may not be the case, or is not allowed to happen, is what is required now and at every moment going forward. It is the most essential work and fervent toil, if America is to be, or become, or remain: a democracy.
These are the key principles around which I feel we can build a common, national pursuit that is capable of healing division and advancing democracy. They are not necessarily the most pressing issues, but they are the concepts that deserve ample attention when discussing the political fault lines splitting the country apart.
Other more simple ground-level observations of politics too often ignore the deep subterranean processes of culture. Their prescribed remedies may yield fruit — such as better informed campaign strategies and electoral victories — but they do nothing to slow the steady loss of acreage as the field crumbles into the widening chasm that is national division.
Why does it feel like the ground is caving under our feet? Why does it feel like others are trying to challenge what little we have? Why do people despise the modest gains we seek to accomplish?
Our inability to bridge this divide and dampen social turmoil, prevents us from focusing on the health of the whole system and particularly on its ability to provide care for all. A narrow focus and shallow solutions can only ever produce meager, short-term gains.
Strong investments into the long-term health of people, society, and democracy are the only interventions that can remedy the deep-seeded issues we face. They could also serve as the genesis of a shared national vision.
Despite our differences and current hostilities, we are beings with similar needs, which means we invariably hold some goals and aspirations in common. We are not so complex that we can live purely philosophically-driven lives, in lock step with the dominant factions of the day. People are relatively simple creatures, and upon our innate similarities we can establish a foundation for a democratic society.
I believe doing this work together is key to the social healing process. By living and organizing together — forming connections across existing self-made boundaries — there will be many things upon which we will agree that seem impossible or improbable now.
The challenge, ultimately, is not believing that we have similar aims, because they exist no matter how hard some people try to dismiss this fact. The true challenge is distilling the truths of our world for public consumption and offering them up for scrutiny and debate. This allows good ideas to be refined and strengthened, so that they may withstand attempts to subvert their aims of improving the public good.
If we do this work openly, and we honestly seek to find the universal concepts that drive people forward, America can be a whole and healthy community: more defined by common needs and shared purpose than by the disagreements that dominate political culture today.
Honest improvement, focused on creating a more perfect union, is as divine and monumental a challenge as any a society can undertake. It is an approach which allows a nation to build on the good that exists and gives people the chance to experiment with new ideas.
What is good about America? What do you think should remain intact or unchanged? What must be overhauled? What comes first, and when is this work complete?
Reflecting on this, Robert La Follette observed: ‘We are slow to realize that democracy is a life; and involves continual struggle. It is only as those of every generation who love democracy resist with all their might the encroachments of its enemies that the ideals of representative government can even be nearly approximated.’
Every single one of the hundreds of millions of people that live on this land must ask tough questions and contribute answers, as best they can. Some things may be delegated, but the bulk of nation building must be tended by people — like you and me — through modest actions that take place every day.
A nation at its most aspirational seeks change through passion and participation — the true currency of democratic society and the solemn duty and charge of all free people. The nation’s future — our fate — rests on the practice of civic life — the lifeblood of liberty.
With such freedom, comes responsibility. Most aptly, the work to maintain democracy, to support our fellow neighbors and communities, and to properly care for ourselves and loved ones.
Rights help protect our bodies and our pursuits, but responsibility reliably orients us toward civic action. Satisfying responsibilities can also lend additional confidence, steeling us to take on larger fights for justice and equality. It inspires so, because responsibility is always present, not just sought when in deficit, or considered precious only when threatened.
For these virtues, and because of the volume of communal work ahead for our society, I believe civic responsibilities should be the guiding principles of our democracy as we seek to transform it.
Responsibilities — expressed similarly to the individual rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights — can guide leaders and help people understand and express their role as part of a nation of millions. It could demonstrate how to contribute to social and political change, and help define what it means to be an American.
In this spirit, to more clearly express the means of citizenship and to set a course for the future of democracy, I propose that we boldly commit to the following pursuits:
- to uphold, strengthen, and expand upon the rights afforded to people;
- to exhibit virtue and civility toward other people;
- to defend against assaults or limitations on people;
- to preserve, maintain and advance the agency and utility of social and natural systems;
- to strive to understand matters important to our lives and the affairs of the nation;
- and, to empower competent and virtuous leaders.
Such tenets could establish a framework for making substantive contributions to democratic society through individual and collective action, and could establish a civic culture guided by principles of citizenship.
This is a movement to which people from all backgrounds and beliefs can support and contribute. And I believe, once the task is embraced and a common vision emerges, it will resoundingly demonstrate that responsibilities and service are as central to freedom as rights.
Critically, I believe such a dream is possible. All people who care about the wellbeing of their neighbors and the overall trajectory of society — and consider neither sacrificable to the needs and desires of the other — are, in my opinion: patriotic.
I believe most people are patriotic to some degree. Not every person reveres the nation, but most care deeply about their community, or a culture they share as part of a belief, hobby, or profession — or a sports team.
What people and places do you care about? What do the people have in common? How have you lived, learned, and struggled together? Why do you care about them?
There’s nothing wrong with caring for your compatriots — it’s human. Love of place and kin has proven to be evolutionarily advantageous in any epoch or political era. Yet the trouble has always been, and continues to be: how far do those feelings extend? At what point do you consider people too ‘different’ to be deserving of your empathy and trust? Once again: who is not ‘us’?
People’s natural inclinations to these questions are one of the central differences I see between America’s two main factions. How people feel about ‘others’ informs a great deal about how they perceive the world, how they interact with it, and the types of politics and political discourse that resonates with them.
Generally, there are people who tend to cast very wide nets of empathy and trust. Their far-reaching bonds may certainly not be as strong as those within their immediate communities, but they perceive a common humanity to exist between them and most other people. For some, that extends to all living things.
They’ve been labeled for their emotional capacity and concern for the wellbeing of others. Deep down, this faction trusts in the value of shared experience, and believes in the power of collective action. ‘We’re all in this together’ is an exemplary mantra.
Conversely, there are people who believe in the importance of personal liberty, and trust in the power of self determination. They are branded many things for their fierce dedication to independence and to traditions. ‘Don’t tread on me’ is a classic response to intrusions upon these values and upon their personal boundaries. While their trust may not extend as far and wide, their bonds among their tight-knit circles can be extremely strong, and they defend those peers passionately.
Few people are caricatures of either faction. Most have empathy for others while caring most deeply for their closest companions. Still, these two axioms underpin our entire social experience and are important to recognize for their influence on contemporary discourse and ability to draw in political support — even if few are truly satisfied with their faction’s leading party.
Despite the natural dissonance between these points of view, I believe that both types of approaches are innate to humans and morally righteous, and that the full range of feelings has an important value to democracy.
These two perspectives balance the pursuit of personal gains with the advance of the general good, serving as a push-and-pull that moderates innovation, yet provides enough time to adequately test and judge the veracity of new ideas and newly enacted laws. Critical to developing legislation and effectively governing, is an understanding of this elastic duality — the natural oscillation between phases of the national mood.
Political strategy, however, is mostly focused on amassing power, not on the general welfare of the people or the effectiveness of legislation. So discourse that sows distrust and intolerance escalates as division and resentment further solidify in culture.
The tug-of-war that moderates progress falls squarely into a stalemate, and the perception and reality of stagnancy lead to a disenchantment with democracy, and an outright hostility toward the inherent flaws at the heart of society, politics and capitalism.
People have the right to be mad, and anger toward governing institutions and social and economic systems is justified today. Yet it’s discordant to view government as something entirely separate from the people at large. Governments are bodies of collective decision making, and right now ours aptly demonstrates the turmoil that resides in culture.
Living together in peaceful progress has always been challenging for a nation with as diverse viewpoints and as strong inclinations as those held by the American people. And it is only bound to get more difficult in the years ahead.
How will we handle it? How will we manage the difficult decisions that come with increased stress and dispair? Can we learn to share, support and care for each other?
There is no perfect union, nor a perfect way to live, yet there is profound solace in self-sufficiency and sublime beauty in the resilience of community. Despite our division, there is much to learn from the many cultures of this nation, and there are no structures better suited for mass collaboration and compromise than government.
It’s not the diagnosis we hoped for: that the most gridlocked and sclerotic sector is still possibly our best bet at reconciliation. But that’s the point: it doesn’t work because the people are not willing to work together.
I believe — through toil and might — a national vision can emerge if we embrace collective wisdom and openly communicate about what we need — as individuals and communities. However, there are a few key reasons why that is not happening, and these failings are making it impossible to acheive any progress on major issues, and forstalling advancements in democracy.
One pressing thing that stands in our way, to achieve this change we need, is divisive rhetoric. It matters how we talk about issues, as well as how much we talk. These factors are significantly impacted by our ability to express ourselves, our perception of public affairs and the role of government, and our ability and willingness to engage with these subjects honestly.
The problems we face are so complex, and at such a scale, that there are rarely simple answers or clear tradeoffs to evaluate. It’s possible for many ideas to be worthy of consideration, and it takes honest deliberation — informed by experience and facts — to agree on viable interventions and paths of implementation.
Education, journalism, and discourse provide the critical skills and the environment necessary to do just this. For the individual, they build the competencies necessary to question, to deliberate and to lead. Societally there are no substitutes to the benefits that come from these pillars of democracy, yet all three are severely languishing in America.
In education: instruction is too poor, costs are too high, or the upheaval surrounding peoples’ lives utterly overwhelms any hope to focus on or excel in class. The U.S. has some of the best schools, so the practices are not unknown, it is simply not prioritized for the good of all learners.
Journalism’s foundation — built on ads and captive audiences — has been upended in a capitalist and information-driven society. With a similar lack of urgency nationally, journalism atrophies, meaning fewer experienced reporters are embedded in centers of power. The dots are unconnected, undissected, and malaligned.
Discourse is also a critical public commons. Online publishing has increased the number and diversity of voices, but we only have time for a select few and to often lean toward viewpoints we agree with — or at least that don’t make us nauseous. The infinite feeds reward scintillating soundbites, but not scholarly prose.
Without the promise of profits, or because of them, the quality of these operations — in terms of the service they provide to democracy — has suffered in the open market. As a result, people bear the cost of a chaotic, less efficient, and less truthful system.
These engines that support collective decision making — public education, journalism, and discourse — are essential to democracy. The populace needs them in good working order to fulfill its responsibilities, so we must dedicate to giving them the time, attention, and the resources necessary to innovate, to flourish, and to ultimately retain our trust.
Ideally, consistent support should come through government spending. This type of large-scale investment would constitute a long-term commitment to continue to live democratically, rather than allow ourselves and future generations to become uneducated, uninformed, and unchallenged.
Until there is the political will to systematically fund these institutions, however, we must commit to carrying this burden cooperatively, among neighbors, across communities, and through regional networks.
What are you doing to support local students and reporters? How can you do more or inspire others to join you? What does doing ‘enough’ look like to meet our loftiest of aims?
Schools need adequate financial support, local publications need paying subscribers, and we need platforms designed to foster dialogue that freely circulates thoughtful criticisms and constructive ideas regarding the way we live. And because many of these products and services now rely on digital access, the internet should be a public utility supplied at a low cost to every household in America.
Our brains want these opportunities, society needs these services, and — looking at the state of the national dialogue — free-flowing information and a standard of truth must be the demand of the populace.
The second critical change in behavior — necessary to transform the nature of politics in America — is to stop giving so much time and money to campaigns.
Elections are important, but is the process reliably producing great candidates and exceptional leaders? Are enough of the nation’s best and brightest attracted to public service? Are the parties adequately developing the leadership and legislative skills necessary to govern effectively?
To get in the game, candidates simply need to be good speakers, fundraisers, and capable of attracting a competent staff and a small slice of the electorate. What is not required to be a viable candidate are great policy ideas, leadership skills, or the abilities to develop effective laws.
Candidates who are successful and ultimately earn a party’s nomination, are in turn tasked with raising an army to battle half of the country and its chosen representative. In all likelihood, that contest will expend millions of dollars, do little to educate the public, and fail to articulate a coherent and realistic legislative agenda. Along the way, they will likely have been forced to discard their virtue for party-preferred strategies and conditional support.
No matter their relative skill, a rep is chosen, becoming one more vote for their team, with little opportunity to demonstrate independence, critical thought, or tactical compromise. Even people with immense political savvy are reduced — by their own parties and the rage of factions — to interchangeable pawns in a stalemate of an entrenched power struggle.
While people may defend the virtues of their favorite politicians and would-be candidates, the campaigns putting them in power are extremely costly. In addition to the price tag, they dominate the airwaves, leave little opportunity for substantive dialogue, and sap the energy of some of the people most passionate about social change. The biggest game in town, ultimately accomplishes too little.
This is the point in the analysis where academics pivot to the promises of innovative new tactics which diversify parties, streamline voting, and diminish or raise the power of parties. Many proposals of this type seek to reward independent-minded candidates who can build broad bases of support and who will more directly serve the interests of constituents.
Approaches that meaningfully shift incentives and encourage politicians to align with the might of the populace are worth implementing to determine if they can improve the effectiveness of the government. Proposals of this kind that are worth serious consideration include: open primaries, ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and an increase in the number of seats in the House of Representatives and the size of their staffs — as well as other promising ideas and tactics.
It’s important to recognize, however, that while elections and voting processes need overhauling — and need to be more transparent to gain public trust — this is not the bulk of the work required. Life won’t magically get better with a few tweaks to electoral processes and party practices.
Even campaign finance laws are not the panacea many tout them to be, because campaigns are not the cause of the government’s dysfunction. They are merely an expression of the pervasive corruption already present in society. No matter how much we pour into campaigns — more or less time and money — they will only ever produce ephemeral structures and have a limited impact.
Campaigns work for parties trying to outmaneuver their opposition and to amass the power needed to advance their agendas. They provide the opportunity to test new tactics and welcome a new generation of workers. And they mobilize people to act — even if it is mostly the people who have already made up their mind.
Mobilizing can reliably secure more votes, but it will never heal division. For that we need organizing.
Organizing is the hard work of finding agreement where there was none, and of aligning coworkers, neighbors, and communities toward common goals. Organizing is about finding consensus. It uses empathy and compromise. Its practitioners can learn about their compatriots, and may sometimes even change their mind. Conversations evolve.
Plenty of social and political campaigns organize people. There is especially great promise in the practice of ‘deep canvassing’, which invites dialogue and empathy between neighbors and across divisions.
But few electoral campaigns venture beyond mobilizing loyalists and harnessing their money. Even if their cause is noble, their voluminous efforts do little to resolve differences and find commonality on local issues immediately relevant to voters and non-voters alike.
We cannot abandon voting, but we should focus on efforts that effectively advance competent leaders who are responsive to the needs of their communities. And we must starve campaigns which do not attempt to educate voters, develop cogent policy proposals, and invest in building up society.
Hollow political strategies and shallow media coverage are fueling today’s division. It is up to the people to opt into organizing and communication strategies that are capable of fostering real change around the culture of politics.
Once we do that — change our personal behavior and which behaviors we reward — we may be capable of establishing a culture that appreciates honesty and breeds leadership, instead of hatred and contempt.
That’s what champions of reform seek: more virtuous and effective decision making. But money and power are not the only corrupting forces. We are witnessing how unbridled passion — immune to facts, logic, and appeals to the public good — can be just as harmful.
When we place blame solely on one factor, or the wrong factors, or if we believe culture is simply irredeemable because humans are flawed, then we give culture a pass, and continue to inadequately address the role people play in dysfunction. These are the grave mistakes that allow root causes to fester.
In truth: the sum total of what people do every day, is culture, and it is rightfully defining — either as a testament or an indictment of how we live.
Whatever is found when holding up a mirror, we need to own it and directly address it. When the verdict is a corrupt culture, there are no easy fixes — just hard work, often against the very natural desires to win, to dominate, and to capture and wield power.
I cannot understand shrinking from this task if you care about democracy. Building a better culture must be a top priority for everyone, or we risk losing the social progress made by previous generations.
Without being overly sentimental or delusional about the past, a nation can take pride in its founding principles and what it has aimed to accomplish. Yet, nations are not defined by their dreams, but by their deeds — most notably by what it actually provides and does to people at home and abroad, as borne by their bodies and minds, and as seen through the lens of history.
Can we curb the afflictions caused by extensive inequality and mass incarceration? Can we develop muscles of diplomacy and a habit of peace? Will we welcome refugees displaced by conflict and climate? Will we conserve, sacrifice, and care for each other?
Lofty aims such as these require noble actions. Especially when the going gets tough, it requires a groundswell of compassion, empathy, and the desire to maintain a common community. When present in public life and leadership, such acts are called courage, honor, and statesmanship.
Right now, however, our culture inadequately rewards those who embody and exercise these qualities. This is especially true in politics, where power and the ability to garner votes vastly outweighs such virtue. If America is to transform, this key component — of embracing and incentivizing honorable behavior — is essential to the reinvigoration of democratic rule.
America can mean many things, but what does it mean to you? What has it stood for in your lifetime? What strengths do you hope it embraces in the future — knowing they could define us for generations?
Those who lived through an era with America as the lone superpower, may want to continue to chase exceptionalism and remain at the front of the pack. That’s a natural desire, evolutionarily. If that’s a real goal of our nation — to remain or become the ‘best’ — then we need to talk seriously about what national attributes can actually get us there.
This is a land of plenty. Its bounty has fueled an industrial and military expansion the likes of which the world had never seen. But many early advantages have disappeared, and we are realizing the immense costs the people bore to make them happen — including war, pollution, and the exploitation of labor.
Public education also once put America head and shoulders above many of its competitors. That former high water mark, though, has not progressed over the years to match the specializations of industries, advancements in technologies, and growth of societies.
As the world has modernized and adopted many of the good and bad aspects of ‘western’ culture, the disparity that existed between nations can no longer be as easily exploited to keep America on ‘top’. We have lost some leverage and competitive advantage.
So, at this stage, we must take an honest appraisal of our strengths. We must ask how and in which directions we can grow that will make us uniquely attractive to investors and newcomers — while also recognizing the contexts of climate and sustainability.
The areas with little promise and high costs, should be the first cut. Non-renewable energy infrastructure and military-led expansion are chief among them. They cost too much — in dollars and lives — to continue unbridaled support by the government and the people.
On the flip side, we have the foundation to be great innovators — with education and science as the key drivers. Science is no magic wand, but investing in education and the advancement of knowledge is as strong a bet as there is. Scientific research advances our understanding of the world and can help us evaluate the past, contemplate the present, and decode our likely futures.
Most important is human rights — one area, in my opinion, that few nations with as large and diverse a population as the U.S. can stake a claim. America, like most nations and places, has a horrendous habit of destroying lives at home and abroad. Yet that doesn’t preclude us from committing to the ideals which we proclaim and moving forward toward a deeper enlightenment.
American might can be a moral right. It is one arena where we could position ourselves out in front of other powerful nations of the world. Being a champion for ethical standards is a valuable position, and it is perhaps the best investment even if you believe strength is the best way to win on the world stage.
There are many available strategies to consider, but people rarely get the chance to set national direction, even in a democracy. If that is ever to be the case, it will happen when a vast majority of the populace can actively engage in these questions and can grow broad consensus for the ideals they hold dear.
If you love this country, are you prepared to do what it takes for it to succeed? Are you willing to change your mind about how that should happen? Or is doing things a certain way more important to you or your identity than the outcomes for which we fight?
Whether you’re swayed by arguments of strength or compassion, an openness to new ideas about democracy will allow us to more easily shift perspectives, establish new goals, and make the adoption of new practices and habits just another part of being an American.
I believe we have the capacity to change in this way. In so doing, it will afford us the opportunity to redefine what a government ‘by the people, for the people’ looks like in practice, and can accomplish in peace.
Despite contemporary political turmoil and the intense foreboding that hangs on our hearts, America has no expiration date. No matter the fate of its governmental structure, this is a resilient place where people have thrived for eons and will continue to reside for generations. It is a hearty animal that will survive all threats, revolutions, and sea changes.
It is also a land that has borne many democratic experiments — from the Haudenosaunee confederacy to the U.S. Constitution, and to the many local cooperatives and regional compacts honored today. Those living here have repeatedly found ingenious ways to succeed by working together.
For people today — living in a configuration formed by conquest and industrialization, and held together by a shared history and an unprecedented scale of interconnectedness — the immense task before us is to determine how to structure public institutions, make collective decisions, and maintain a resilient society that righteously balances the needs of people with public and private interests.
In a democracy, struggling as we are to meet these aims, we must honestly and forthrightly ask: do we truly want the wisdom and experience of the populace — and not just small portions of it — to influence decision making at every level of power?
It is not a simple question, because this has never been practiced in America’s modern history. Only through immense public participation and social movements has more public control of the levers of power ever been secured by the people.
The moment before us is no different. We seek the autonomy to decide how to live, because we believe — bolstered by the many sources of knowledge and wisdom we each and collectively possess — that we know what is right for ourselves and our compatriots. It is the hubris of life that will never be surrendered.
Yet, I hope that we are wise enough to realize that not one of us is completely right nor has all the answers, and that America, in all its iterations past and present, has succeeded because of a diversity of views, a tolerance toward those who possess views different from our own, and a willingness to try new ideas considered radical, far-fetched, or seemingly counterintuitive.
Governing the nation is the supreme task at hand. And all levels of federalism are intended to be — to some degree — an extension of the will of the people. That we are so divided and distracted makes such work near impossible, but there is much we can accomplish relatively quickly by listening to each other, working to find common ground, and seeking the common understanding that enables us to speak with one voice on the issues where we do find consensus.
To these ends, I contend that fairness, responsibility, and participation are the principles upon which to build a new conception of democracy. A maturation of this depth will require inumerable investments by individuals and enormous levels of collaboration and trust between groups that is near unimaginable today.
That is what, from the ground, evolution looks like: magnitudes of change unfathomable to the individuals who remaining relatively unaltered, but through modest contributions are part of a consequential shift that changes the form and direction of the whole.
Change is inevitable, but we have the choice — today and at every moment hereafter — to accept our divisive culture and its detrimental outcomes, or to act with intention to set common goals. I believe it is possible, and that by working together honestly and productively, we can strive and seek to find the next version of democracy — one that is stronger and more representative, to match the rich history of this place and the monumental scale of our ambition.
Thank you for reading this essay — a disquisition on the causes of America’s political division. I tried my best to produce a genuine article of perceived truth. It is a suitable approximation of my thoughts about the state of our democracy and the ways I believe it can be improved through changes in behavior and culture. Next, I plan to write about how I think we can organize a popular political movement to further these ideas and to achieve ambitious common goals together.
When composing these words, it was important to me to write compellingly — meaning unwavering in my belief to the point at hand. My tone should not suggest the concepts or conclusions are sacrosanct. I merely expressed them in prose that matched my conviction about their value.
I also did not address many topics that are critical to the fate of our society. Do not construe my lack of focus as a dismissal of their weight. I focused on the issues essential to advancing democracy that I feel are less recognized as related to culture, compared to issues like race, social justice, and foreign relations which may be considered primarily cultural. There are better writers than me who directly address these issues with the lived experience necessary to discuss them in detail and provide compelling rites and remedies.
While I whole-heartedly welcome constructive criticism on this essay, I am more eager to read your perceived truths and potent ideas. The world needs your voice. Tell your story, and it will be clear that my limited view is — as it could only ever be — inadequate.
My beliefs have been significantly influenced by the history and idiosyncrasies of Wisconsin, the wisdom of the native peoples of America, many local and regional farming traditions and food systems, the members of my creative and industrious family, and the many important life-long friendships I am fortunate to possess. To all who fit in those definitions, and especially to those who have supported my ambitions: thank you.
I have also been inspired by many things I have learned and read. I give notable credit — for the influence they have had on my maturation as a citizen — to: Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, John Nichols, Baratunde Thurston, George Packer, Danielle Allen, Lee Drutmand, Lee Hamilton, Robert LaFollette, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy, John McCain, Russ Feingold and Barack Obama.
Photo credit: Purple pedaled conical flowers in field with light blue sky. / @tarek_correa via Unsplash