Much is being said about what will happen after today’s election. What will President Obama and the Republicans do? Where did all the passion for “change” go? What should be the next policy agenda? Over the coming weeks, I will return to these themes. But, today, I want to focus on the underlying fight I believe we must be prepared to take on after Election Day.
I remember writing after Obama’s historic election that we shouldn’t misread his victory as a sign that Americans were ready for fast and deep change. While people said they wanted change, there was no widespread agreement on what they change should be. Rather, what people sought first and foremost was “hope”– a reason to believe that we Americans could find ways to come together and shift the tone and direction of politics and public life. This had more to do with people’s underlying frustration over the conditions of the nation than any specific policy issue. I worried that the president and others would overreach on the policy side – and they did.
What people want is to be able to hope again. To believe that it is possible for Americans from different walks of life to take action on issues that matter to them. To demonstrate that beyond the acrimony and divisiveness of Red and Blue, rich and poor, religious and secular, people can and will work together. Even during this period of stalemate and ugliness in our politics, as I travel the country I find people yearning to re-engage and reconnect with each other; to be part of something larger than themselves. In local communities, I find a readiness among people to step forward and solve problems.
So what’s the fight we must be prepared to engage in? I tell you, it’s a fight over what kind of politics and public life we will have in this nation. Will we actively look for openings to bring people together to work on common challenges? Will we be intentional in crossing dividing lines to join with individuals who are different from ourselves or who we’ve labeled as “our enemies”? Will we peel off actions that we can use as “proof points” to demonstrate that progress is still possible?
The fight is a fight for “hope.” By this, I do not mean some kind of silliness in which we gather up in a circle, hold hands, and sing Kumbyah. Such notions are a fantasy and would merely engage us in a collective march of folly. Nor do I believe that those individuals and groups who insist on their way or the highway – those who often hold our politics and public life hostage – will easily give way and welcome those of us who want to shift our politics and public life.
As I see it, one of our chief objectives must be to confront those individuals and groups who insist on their agenda without regard to others, and without any authentic engagement or discussion. We must not back down when they seek to strike fear in people and attempt to cow them into submission. But, the converse is true as well: we must not demonize those who do genuinely have different points of view from ourselves. Such reflexes only add more toxicity to the public square.
This fight is also a fight between false hope and authentic hope. False hope is when we set expectations for change that fail to reflect reality. When we make pledges and promises we know we cannot meet, but make anyway because it seems the easiest way to get where we want to go. False hope is created when we exaggerate our own successes in brochures, web sites, speeches, and elsewhere, believing that is what everyone does, and so we should, too.
Why do I say this is a fight for hope? Because the key to breaking through the nation’s current impasse is not about ramming through any political party or particular group’s prescribed policy agenda. Nor is it to find ways simply to play politics as usual better – to beat one’s opponents at their own game. Rather, our challenge is fundamentally about the restoration of people’s faith in themselves and one another (and in our institutions and leaders). The lack of such “civic faith” is at the heart of what ails America. The good news is that civic faith can be generated by people – in fact, it’s the only way it comes about. Our task, then, is to be willing to step forward and alter how we engage and work together; our goal must be to producer proof points that demonstrate it is possible to believe again. None of us can do this alone. But each of us must act. Let’s declare tomorrow day one in our new fight.