A Call Back to Our Better Selves

I am repulsed each day by what I read and hear on the news about what’s happening in our country—and to our country. Outright lies about political issues, deflections over personal responsibility, and bait and switch arguments over reality have left many of us bewildered about the state of America. In these troubled times, we must guard against cynicism and turning against one another.

The ongoing health care debate is only one example of our current maladies. There is a variety of legitimate or reasonable arguments that can be made against Obamacare: how it was passed along a straight party line; how the market exchanges have fallen short; and how the Medicaid expansion added billions of dollars to the federal budget, among others. 

But the Republican “repeal and replace” option offers little hope for Americans. Truth be told, scant discussion has been heard about what matters to Americans; how to improve their lives; what happens to the estimated 22 million people who will be left without coverage, or the ability to pay for ample coverage. 

There are real debates to be had about health care. The same is true regarding environmental policies, immigration, Russian interference with the 2016 election, housing and poverty policies, and a host of other issues. But those debates are nowhere to be found. We do not hear them. Instead, we live in a house of mirrors. Bombarded by noise. Overwhelmed at times by hate. 

We must find a way out.

Each day when I receive calls from associates, or am on the road, I hear sheer anger expressed by people on different sides of the political divides in our country. Such anger leads to outrage. Outrage left unchecked produces disgust. Disgust leads to bitterness. And bitterness can yield the perpetration of scapegoating and indignities. The result is for one person to turn against the other. To stereotype and demonize “the other.” To question one another’s motivations and intentions. Self-righteousness can preclude self-reflection. Such divisions produce no good—at a time when it is the common good that summons us. 

David Brooks, in his newspaper column today, quoted a moving excerpt from Alexis de Tocqueville writing about what happens to people when society splinters:

“They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself along and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” 

The Institute recently launched new initiatives in Winchester, Kentucky, which sits on the edge of Appalachia, and in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, in the Delta. We are working in Sarasota and Manatee Counties, Florida, in Denver, and with a multitude of groups all across California, Michigan and Indiana. What I know from these and many other efforts is that we Americans do not believe we owe nothing to any other person; nor do we wish to stand alone. 

But we do fear these omens. Our politics today embolden those who seek to manipulate, lie and fan the flames of derision. It is one thing to be angry or repulsed by what we see happening—as am I; it is yet another to allow this anger to turn into bitterness, self-righteousness, even demonizing others. 

Don’t fall for it. Don’t turn on those different from yourself. Don’t become bitter. We are better than this. American history is stained by mistakes and injustices; and yet, we have time and again set a new course, a more hopeful direction, one filled with possibility. This is our task today. Start where you can—in your families, your workplaces, your places of worship, your community. Amid all the noise, find a moment of quietude in your day, and refuse to stand alone and owe nothing to anyone else.

Call yourself and others back to our better selves.