The sneak preview of the American mood

It’s been nearly a week since the mid-term elections. What can we now say about the public mood and the opportunities that lie ahead for forging a different path in public life and politics? Later today, I will participate in a roundtable at the National Archives sponsored by the Kettering Foundation and the presidential libraries on “Democracy’s Challenge: Reclaiming the Public’s Role”; then, this Wednesday, I will host a teleconference on the meaning of the election for public innovators. What shall I say at these events?

For starters, we must know that this election was a long time coming; it didn’t just happen and we shouldn’t be surprised. People have held deep and profound anger about the state of American public life and politics for years; and that anger has been coupled with a sense of resignation – that people could not affect change. This was, in part, the topic of my recent book, Hope Unraveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back.

Then a series of isolated events in recent years converged – from the ugliness of the 2004 election, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to rising uncertainties with the war in Iraq – helping to crystallize people’s views about public life and politics. What we saw in the mid-term elections, I believe, was just a sneak preview of those views.

The signal people are sending is unmistakable: they want a more respectful tone to guide public life and politics and more productive energies put into addressing people’s concerns and aspirations.

But merely depending on a sneak preview can be dangerous. For it’s the whole story we need to know. You see, dealing with the tough issues people want addressed will require that we change how we engage in public life and politics.

But beware, this doesn’t mean that people want a Miss Manners-type public life, where niceties are exchanged and uncomfortable issues are swept under the rug. Nor do they want obstructionist, testosterone-driven tactics employed. No, people want something more robust and vibrant, more focused on looking ahead, something that is rooted in and authentically reflects their daily realities.

The dilemma we now face is that we do not have the civic muscles to exercise this kind of public life and politics. So here are just three steps I think must be our focus if we are to have any chance of pursuing an alternate path for politics and public life:

1. We must focus our discourse and engagement on the search for the public good, and not fall prey to cheap and easy tactics to sell people on solutions that merely say to them, “Go ahead, focus only on you’re own good!” Self-interest is an essential element of human nature; that we cannot change. But we can ask people to see themselves more as active citizens and doers, connected to something larger than themselves, than as passive, isolated, me-first consumers.

2. We must take this opportunity to build the capacity of our communities for change. Wherever I go, I find many organizations and individuals doing good work, but by necessity they often focus on small niches. We need more boundary spanning, catalytic organizations that can bring people together across (purported) dividing lines; that can incubate new ideas; that can hold a mirror up to a community; that can create space for genuine collaboration. More and more I am finding organizations that want to step into this role – from United Ways, to community foundations, to community colleges, to public broadcasters, to others; moreover, there are new opportunities the online world offers to us. Now is the time to act.

3. We must focus on pursuing authentic hope and stop peddling false hope. I have written a great deal on this topic. All I will add here is that the mid-term elections created a new opening to engage people. But those who seek to pursue this engagement must be careful not to fall into old traps of pushing false hope by setting goals that cannot be met, exaggerating mandates, and failing to fulfill basic promises. In people’s lives, playing with hope is like playing with fire.

Over the past twenty years there has been any number of opportunities, akin to the recent mid-term election, to begin the process of changing the direction of public life and politics. Nearly every time, we have stepped forward to seize the moment, only to re-embrace practices that have deepened people’s sense of frustration.

Today, we are witnessing another opportunity.