Like most of you reading this, I have been quite concerned over the political process in this country, especially since Donald Trump’s election. While we know this president did not create the divisiveness that now plagues our nation, he certainly stoked the flames that now appear to have turned into a blaze which on some days seems truly out of control. And like most of you, I have been wondering what, if anything can be done to reverse its consuming energy that threatens us all. For make no mistake about it, as happy as it made us, and we were dancing in the streets here in the Big Apple, Joe and Kamala winning the election is not, in and of itself, going to change America.
I worked hard to elect Hillary in 2016. The night of the election felt like a funeral and for days after, I was actually semi-comatose. How could it have happened? After all, the polls had her so far ahead of one of the least liked candidates in American history. For years after I was obsessed with the news, especially CNN and MSNBC, both of which have become more like op-ed programs than actual news. They no longer even attempt to hide their vitriol and disdain for our president, nor can I blame them. Watching Rachel or Lawrence or Joy fueled my outrage and reinforced how right “we” are and how wrong “they” are. I signed more petitions than I could count, demonstrated for immigrants’ rights, lobbied my Senators, donated funds to numerous candidates and causes, relished in the anti-Trump cartoons and memes—you get the picture. Saturday Night Live with Alec Baldwin was my reward for having made it through another Trump week.
And then the pandemic hit, I moved to New York, and I stopped watching television—cold turkey. I did not stop caring; rather, I turned my attention inward and began to think about our problem from a perspective outside the political process because, quite frankly, nothing seemed to be working—facts became fungible, lies replaced truth telling, sycophants dominated the White House scene, and conspiracy theories suddenly became working hypotheses. I intuited that we need BIG picture thinking that sees the complexity of our current situation, not just the “we the good guys, they the bad guys” simplistic trope that seems to dominate the current conversation. I have looked to history, sociology, economics, psychology (especially Systems Theory), leadership development, art and literature. So here is what I know.
Just like an individual, we never fully escape our personal history, our past. We can examine it, gain insight and understanding, decide to make changes, implement those changes and travel a new path. But there is one truth about the past upon which we can all agree—it is over and no matter what, it ain’t changing. Not now. Not ever. Each and everyone of us carries their past—the good, the bad, and the ugly—with them.
This nation was founded on white Protestant male privilege. Period. Just read the Constitution. It may be the bedrock of our democracy, but it hardly included every American. Though there is much work still to be done, lots has changed. Over the last century or so, we have chipped away at the structures which kept women (who only gained the right to vote through Constitutional Amendment in 1920); people of color (who were categorized as only three fifths human in that same Constitution); religious minorities (who were legally discriminated against through quotas and immigration laws); and members of the LGBTQ community (whose love was actually considered a crime) out of the mainstream of American life. This process of inclusiveness accelerated under the Obama administration which is why liberals saw it as progress, the dawn of a new day, (hence our shock and disappointment during these last four years) while for the right wing our former President has become their lightning rod for all that is terrible about America.
Make America Great Again is code for returning to a time PRIOR to all these “advances” as millions of our fellow citizens have felt marginalized, left behind, or simply left out by these equalitarian changes in our nation’s laws and social structures. We can call them “bigots” or “misogynists” or “a basket of deplorables” but the truth is they comprise just about half of all American citizens. And unless their fears and feelings are addressed, we will have two Americas trading power and forcing their agenda through executive orders, thus paralyzing and ultimately weakening our nation. We have been trading parties in subsequent elections to our detriment practically my entire life. Force can enable us to get our way, but force can never change hearts or minds.
While there are still disturbing disproportionate disparities in several key areas, especially in the prison population, we have undergone and are undergoing “rapid” societal changes in America. Change, whether for an individual or a group, ALWAYS triggers loss. Loss is accompanied by anxiety. And anxiety paralyzes us. As we know for individuals, anxiety can be medicated so its effects are muted which gratefully relieves the symptoms enabling us to function; however, it does not eliminate the root cause.
On the other hand, for a society, there is no miracle pill. That means unless and until we address this anxiety felt by nearly half of our citizenry, nothing will change except that America’s power and prominence will continue to be diminished in the world. That may be inevitable. After all, in the history of the world, no empire no matter how great lasted forever. This may be the time about which future historians will write, America’s decline began. Who knows? It may also be the time in which a second civil war will be fought, or the nation divided into two separate countries. It has happened in Europe and in Africa. Why not here?
I know many of my friends want to believe that electing the right people will solve our current morass. I wish that were so. However, elections have become vicious competitions. Competition by its very nature creates winners and losers which, yes, is anxiety producing. Therefore, any competitive process, like what our politics has become, cannot solve this problem. What we need is a new unifying vision for America which includes and can galvanize ALL of its citizens. Everyone (and by that I mean a truly sizable majority) needs to buy in; otherwise our decline will only accelerate.
When I coached soccer many years ago, I taught my team that our opponent was not our enemy; for indeed, without them, there was no game. That did not mean we took it easy or did not play to win. In fact, we won our division and the state championship. For those who live with a scarcity mentality (i.e. there is not enough for everyone so I must grab all that I can for myself and my loved ones) winners and losers are the only option. But for those of us who can see plenty, there is more than enough to go around. Adding to myself does not have to equal the diminishment of the other. Life is not a zero-sum game. We are truly all in this together.
The last great American visionary was the late Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King. He opened the hearts and minds of our nation with his “I have a dream” address in our nation’s capitol. Tragically, he was murdered because a small but violent minority felt threatened by his notion of inclusivity. They thought, if “they” get more, “we” will get less. This limited thinking (which we also witnessed in Israel with the assassination of its great visionary Yitzhak Rabin) needs to be replaced with “the more, the more.” We compete, we survive, maybe; we collaborate, we thrive, definitely.
Collaboration begins with seeing the humanity of the other and really hearing them, their concerns, their beliefs. We do not have to agree; we just need to listen. Right now, we are all “othering” the other, projecting our limited notions of who and what they are, to our mutual misfortune. That may continue. Even on dating apps, people write in their profile, “If you voted for Trump, do not contact me.” It has happened in families, as well, no longer getting together, not because of COVID19, but because of the people for whom they voted. But here is what I know about the future. It is not inevitable, though we sometimes act that way. Rather, the future only exists in our imagination.
Can you imagine an America that embraces all of us? When we say “we the people” this time, can we envision a society that actually means everyone? Call me an optimist or a Pollyanna (I have been called worse) but I believe it can happen. My sense is it will not come from a politician, but it may. Or perhaps there will be a grass roots movement called something like, All of US (pun intended) that will light the path to the next chapter of America’s greatness. I hope and pray it will. For in spite of all its faults, this is a great country and Americans are a truly generous and caring people. It starts with each and everyone of us asking the question not only to those with whom we agree, but especially to those with whom we may disagree—How can we all thrive? Not only here in the USA, but throughout the world.
Please write to me about the results of such conversations. I would love to hear from you. I can be reached through my website terrybookman.com