The following was originally published in my Nov 4, 2020 Newsletter in the “Additional Thoughts” section
Like many others, I am cautiously optimistic about the results of our state and national elections. I am probably not alone in fearing how these results may or may not be accepted by people who do not like them and wish it had turned out differently. We face serious dangers when folks assess their own behavior by asking only “can I assert power and be in control?” rather than “is this the right thing to do?”
At this time in 2016, I was horrified by national election results but I also hoped to see an exercise of “checks and balances” in our government. That did not happen. In these last four years, we saw leaders openly embrace anger over reason, vilification of the “other,” and a divisiveness extreme enough to inspire threats of (and actual) violence. Wealthy interests hijacked political debate with campaigns of misinformation and hate: repeating and amplifying lies, effectively distorting reality for many Americans. In this environment, people in power have been able to posture righteousness while serving their own interests and those of the most privileged among us.
Our national institutions failed us because many of our leaders were too cowardly to stand up against generalized rage, focused hostility, and specific threats. Emotional, vicious impulses damage our communities generally, but are even more destructive when they infect our government. Too many leaders saw strength in alliance (no matter what), so the few insiders who did stand up in opposition to this environment were quickly targeted and forced out. Integrity had no chance against a well-funded machine.
I look forward to the return of national leadership that unifies us toward common goals, obligates the economically privileged to support the public good, and protects the most vulnerable members of our community. I’m excited for national leadership that takes the responsibility of government seriously and is competent to tackle complex issues. I am eager for a new president who can communicate his policies honestly without hurling insults, exploiting people’s ignorance, or weaponizing emotion and personal prejudices. These are minimum, basic standards for decent government and principled leadership.
At the local level, we have the power to make our own decent, principled government. When we wrestle with issues of controversy in our shared community, there is maximum opportunity to hear perspectives, understand them, and reconcile differences if we listen to each other and focus on facts. If we value serious and informed government, we can facilitate that by inviting questions (to be answered) rather than dismissing them, sharing information (to be assessed) rather than ignoring it. Locally, we should be less vulnerable to political manipulation because – no matter how often a lie or mischaracterization is repeated – relevant truths (and direct conversations with each other) are readily available. At this local level, decisions and their consequences are right in front of us for everyone to see clearly, without the distortion of political framing and posturing.
The embarrassment of bumping into someone at the grocery store should be reason enough for leaders not to engage in histrionics, personal attacks and hostility. We should all be keenly aware of how inflated rhetoric and finger-pointing can prompt dangerous behaviors, even here. Most importantly: it should be clear to everyone that our interests are more similar than different. If we choose reason over emotion, points of disagreement should never inspire anger, insults, or threats. We are a community that works together, lives together and goes to school together; none of us (much less our leaders) should aim to destroy each other. In the neighborhoods we share, there is a unique opportunity for dialogue.
The coming weeks are going to be a test of our democracy, given how many leaders have openly encouraged people to act on their very worst impulses – and exploited those impulses – recently.