Here in my adopted home state of Maryland, the horse known as Smarty Jones recently won the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown. The race, which I watched, reminded me once again of Ray Rivers, my childhood coach. Mr. Rivers used to drive the tractor around Saratoga Racetrack after each race to smooth out the course. He did this every August during the short, four-week meet for as long as I can remember. When I listen to the current political debate on the war in Iraq, health care, education and the assortment of other issues, I have this recurring thought. What if I went to Mr. Rivers’ house and filmed him talking about his concerns and hopes. What if I went to a lot of people’s homes?
Then, imagine that I played these clips next to the commercials from the two presidential candidates? I bet you the two sets of tapes would seem as if they are from different planets.
How can that be?
It seems that the presidential candidates’ strategy is to reinforce people’s differences and biases rather than to engage them in envisioning how the nation can move forward. They are locking people into a divided state. There are few real ideas that they ask people to consider. They utterly fail to inspire people to think beyond themselves. They are unwilling to ask people to give of themselves. They merely tell us that we can have whatever we want, without any trade-offs or costs.
If I were to gather in the same room all the people that I filmed, I bet, with a good discussion moderator, that over time they could figure out various ways to deal with issues like health care and education. I know this because I have done it. It wouldn’t be easy; people would get angry; no one would get exactly what they want. There might even be some new taxes involved.
I know campaigns are tough. I’ve worked on over 20 of them myself. But I also know that if the candidates (and those of us as individuals) merely play to our own superficial ideas and fears, this nation will stay divided.
The candidates need to trust the American people a bit more – to be able to engage beyond the superficial. They need to challenge us, too. We need to challenge ourselves. Otherwise we all end up separate and divided.