This time last year, we were all preparing for a Blue Wave midterm election that I worried we’d misinterpret. I wondered what it might take for us to win AND turn away from our mean, self-centered, power-centered politics and whether the 2020 primary might offer a new story of redemption that might help us reclaim our civic life. But our current path and the stories we are being offered about who we are and who we can be feel as small as ever.
Citizens finding politics uninspiring and exhausting is at least in part a symptom of failed leadership. A consequence of leaders disconnected from the people they represent, disconnected from a sense of service, and possessing an almost pathological lack of ambition that leaves citizens questioning the value of their leaders and wondering whether the institutions we rely on to frame and structure our collective society are worth our belief. This subtle, cynical disbelief makes us easy to manipulate and easy to turn toward an angry exasperation.
This anger is still perhaps the loudest defining characteristic of our collective current civic life — on both sides of the aisle. A daily barrage of us-versus-them pours from our White House and is met with a slightly different version in response. Beneath this anger for those who live and die with each political battle is a tit-for-tat, fighting-fire-with-fire desire for retribution, an unwillingness to accept give-and-take, and a lost understanding that in a diverse country with uneven and imperfect traditions we will lose some arguments and that not every argument is an existential threat. This existential anger creates a fragility that leads to a meanness and pettiness that turns most of the rest of us away from politics. For many more their anger is rooted in a profound sense of unfairness — some very old, rooted in traditions of exploitation and dehumanization, and some very new, rooted in new economic upheaval (also exploitative and dehumanizing) where the two sets of rules at work in modern America are enforced against some and in many cases can be ignored at will by the wealthy and the powerful. But for most people who don’t live and die with each political battle, much of that anger (and it’s companion exasperation) is actually driven by a deeply seated anxiety about the future, about the terrible truth that an amazing new era might be coming, but that they might not be part of it and that their leaders are not interested in or up to the task of leading us into this new era.
It is our inability (or unwillingness) to imagine, to conceive of a world beyond our experience that holds us back. Mired in the petty meanness of partisanship and their desire for retributions our leaders offer ideas rooted in a small, incrementalism:
- Of course we fight for a $15 minimum wage when we are stuck in an industrial view of the world where increasing our linear capacity to earn is the only way to increase wealth. What if rather than assuming multiple classes of work must each be compensated in their own way, we create a unified system of compensation that treats all work as work and puts all employees into the same system?
- Of course a wealth tax seems like a good way to slow accelerating inequality because if some have too much we must redistribute it to those who have too little. What if rather than some system of redistribution that only serves to make exploitation slightly more expensive for the rich (and ameliorate our punitive desire for retribution) while they continue to operate in their own exponential economy while the rest of us toil in a linear economy of consistently flatten slope, we could all participate in the exponential wealth creation of the modern innovation economy?
- If we want our neighbors to be healthy, of course we fight for some idea of universal health insurance because we assume insurance is the only way to pay for medical care. What if we all had easy access to excellent doctors wherever we are whenever we needed them and that didn’t require a massive industry of insurers (read: rent seekers)? How would we ensure quality and access for everyone everywhere?
- Of course we are afraid of automation accelerating our loss of opportunity because all most of us have seen of the post-industrial economy is growing inequality and the slow decay of our certainty about our future. What if what was automated were the repetitive tasks that make much of our work feel rote and boring and that full-employment required less of our time, leaving us free to build the future and parent and find joy in participating in our community while still providing well for our families?
- Of course we must hold on to our right to arm ourselves in the face of the tyranny of inequity all around us. But rather than arming ourselves against the potential tyranny of the state, we’re now predominantly arming ourselves against each other. What if we saw servants leading us and subjugating their power to our needs? What if we found a way to see our neighbors as neighbors not threats? Would we still demand to be armed? Against whom would we be arming ourselves? Can we be safe without that right? Can we be reimagine our idea of full citizenship without the capacity for hard power? At what point in our cultural evolution do we reexamine whether all of our founding assumptions and rights are still serving us?
- Of course acknowledging our past, apologizing for our great traumas, and making amends feels like an impossible task because there is no way to atone for genocide and centuries of subjugation. But what if we lived in a world where the emotional and spiritual healing of acknowledgement and apology made possible a whole new possibility of amends? A world where lifting up those who’ve been long held down did not require anyone taking their place under anyone else’s boot but where we all in fact grew from the same foundation of opportunity and where investing in each others health and success was necessary to lift ourselves. We’ve been running uphill for generations anchored and held back by pain and the scar tissue of unresolved trauma. What might be possible if we let go of those constraints, not by ignoring them (which hasn’t worked) but by facing and eliminating them including the new inequities that obscure our capacity to recognize and heal old ones? What might be possible for our collective future if we freed ourselves to allow the future we want dictate our present rather than the limitations of our past?
We must together embrace that transformation is the engine of progress and that together we must envision a future that is not only just and moral but also ambitious.
There is a thin but durable film of fear and the seemingly immovable inertia of our limited human experience between us and a world where we are all able to greet our collective future with joy and excitement. It is right on the other side of a simple but excruciatingly hard choice: to choose to have faith in the collective possibility that our current dysfunction is impermanent, that it is not a given, that it is not the inevitable consequence of men seeking power, that it is not the foregone conclusion of a zero-sum competition to divide up a limited view of what’s possible. The possibility that we can coexist and disagree and thrive together. That we can govern ourselves and keep each other safe. That we do not have to succumb to deaths of disbelief and despair. That there is room for all of us in a future that is kinder than our present. That is more abundant than we generally allow ourselves to imagine. That is open to the possibility of dignity and joy for everyone. That film that seems to hold us back, that traps us in a mean, unfair status quo, that confines us to the unambitious ideas of maximizing today feels unbreakable, but it is as weak as the idea that we are the limited, permanent end of evolution.
If we let ourselves embrace the possibility that we are finding our way into a new phase of human experience, that we are on the bleeding edge of an evolution that is still progressing, that there is more for us than this meanness then it is our duty to hold on to that idea as fundamentally sacred and that while change is inevitable and inevitably scary, so is joy, so is our infinite capacity to preserve, to heal, and to find our way into that future. And that film will fall away from our eyes, and we’ll see how limited our ideas have been and how much more we can imagine for ourselves and for each other.
To lead means to shape a view of a world of progress for everyone, to turn everyone’s face in the direction of a collective future we can all be excited for because there is a role for all of us. No one is subjugated — no one is superfluous — everyone thrives. Let’s go in that direction. Push through that film of doubt and meanness that people say is permanent but that we know in our hearts is not. We can all participate in a future of kindness, safety, and joy where the exponential wealth being hoarded by some actually elevates everyone, where our needs are met without our survival requiring the subjugation of our lives to the creation of wealth for someone else, and where we can live in a good way with the earth.
We are better than our politics, and we crave a better story for America than one riven by partisanship and greed and frustration. And this desire is ultimately more than political, it is a moral and spiritual craving for something better, for a source of meaning beyond the dignity of work, for value expressed beyond economic terms. We are more than this, and it is long past time for leaders to step onto a new path and show us how a simple but profound change in consciousness and perspective might allow us to walk in a new direction together.