The Campaign: Is this really happening to us?

By Rich Harwood

As election day fast approaches, all of a sudden it feels as if a deep lull has swept over the nation and halted us in our very steps. People are asking a simple question: Is this really happening to us? At times the presidential campaign has brought out the worst of America, and left us bereft. Sadly, no matter who wins, we can expect more ugliness.

What are we to do?

Over the past handful of months, I have crisscrossed the nation too many times to count—from Yakima, Washington to Sarasota, Florida, from Hawaii to Mississippi, and from Denver to Kentucky and West Virginia, and assorted places along the way. My trips have been physically exhausting, and yet emotionally uplifting.

No doubt, at each stop, no matter where I have gone, and with whomever I’ve spoken, people have been dismayed by the toxic, corrosiveness of our national politics. They abhor the name-calling. They detest the shallowness. Embarrassment and disbelief prevail. I often hear people ask, “How can we ever get out of this mess?”

What’s clear is that our leaders in Washington, D.C., will not be leading the way. Don’t hold your breath waiting for effective action to come from the nation’s capital. Nor should you expect inspiring acts of leadership. Sadly, we are now witnesses to a woeful march of folly—until it bottoms out. In time, it will.

But we needn’t acquiesce to this path of the status quo. There is an alternate path in front of us; we must choose it. This is a path of possibility and hope. Such a path is not one of nice sentimentality, or blindly rooted in nostalgia, or based on hype and false promise. In our heart of hearts, we know better.

Instead, the path of possibility and hope is closer to you than you might think. It’s more doable than what could seem possible. How? It comes from within us. And from among us.

Amid the rancor and silliness of our national politics, resides a deep yearning within the American people to make community a common enterprise again. To build greater trust, forge deeper relationships and grow our civic confidence that we can come together to get things done.

I hear people speak of this yearning as I travel the country, do on-the ground work in communities, and lead rigorous research efforts to understand Americans’ attitudes and beliefs. It exists. It is real.

All we must do to tap into this yearning is actively make the choice to turn outward toward one another and take small steps forward together. Such steps might be as simple as shifting our usual conversations from one of complaints to expressing the kind of community we want to help create. It could be finding places where you can take action with others—in your place of worship, local school or running group—and naming out loud with them why that action gives you a sense of progress and hope. Another step might be going the extra mile when seeking someone in need and helping them out—acting as the Good Samaritan—especially when you are more likely to turn away.

Of course, we need to do bigger things together, too. I have in mind everyday people in Spartanburg, South Carolina, who built and now run a medical equipment exchange that makes equipment available at no cost to residents and where people often donate something they found in their home when they return their loaned equipment. Or, the group of residents and police officers in Hartford, Connecticut, brought together by the local library, who are working to build stronger community-police relations.

Whether the actions or big or small, they all count, more now than ever. When we each of us steps forward, we reaffirm the goodness that exists within and among us—especially when we see and hear those who look or sound or seem different from one another. Then, we can reclaim the potential for coming together. And then we can gain the confidence to take on even more systemic challenges.

Most of all, by tapping into this yearning, we restore the human element to our common lives.

Make no mistake: What emerges will not immediately change policy or discourse in Washington, D.C. Nor will it transform our national leaders anytime soon. Or end hunger or stop killings.

But we’ve already proven that the path of the status quo will not get us there either. Instead, let us start down a different, better path. One of our own choosing. One where we choose not to contribute to the toxic climate but rather combat it through our daily actions. Indeed a first step on this path is to reclaim something else that we already know, but which has been overwhelmed, even sullied by recent events: We are better than this.