Warning: Beware of Political Giddiness
Like many people, I'm excited to see how people are stepping forward to engage in this year's presidential race. Indeed, as I travel the country there's a growing contagion of giddiness spreading throughout the land. But, lurking beneath the surface of our national "feel-good" is a warning we must heed, or else run the risk of promoting false hope. The challenge before us is to not misread people's shared anger and renewed energy for common ground about how they wish to move ahead. The general urge for change is not at all the same as an endorsement or readiness for particular change. The presidential candidates must know this, and so too must the rest of us who see ourselves as catalysts for change.
What we are witnessing in this election cycle is people saying "Enough Is Enough!" over the state of the union and our overly partisan and rancorous politics. They believe that, as a society, we have failed to make real progress on the pressing issues before us, and that matters have only gotten worse in recent years. Things have come to a head.
But, whenever an impasse is at work, the desire for change should not be equated with agreement on what to do. This is true when any of us hit a personal impasse and feel stuck without the clarity about how to proceed. It was true when I first started working in Flint, Michigan in 1997, when I heard people say, "This can't go on!" and yet there was a clear absence of agreement on what should be done. It is true within organizations that hit an impasse, and for the nation, too. Let's be clear: At impasse, people want relief � and fast; and they want to believe that change is on the way.
And yet, at impasse most communities (and in this case, the nation) lack the civic foundation for widespread change to take place. The right conditions, capacity, collective will, and common ground to produce such change are missing. Go to any community and you can hear people talk about this lack of civic foundation � about the community's fragmented efforts, negative norms for public discourse, lack of trust in its leaders, and dearth of catalytic organizations that truly work for the common good, not just for their own good.
The danger before us now is to assume that the energy emerging from this presidential cycle will automatically convert into enthusiasm and sustainable support for real change. That would be a dire mistake. Sadly, that may be the direction in which we're headed now, a direction rooted in growing giddiness, which will lead to false hope. My intent in raising this concern is not to dampen people's current enthusiasm, or to be a naysayer. Quite the opposite, my own work is rooted in the sense of possibility that is created when people tap their own potential, join together, and act on their shared aspirations.
But, I also know that change requires us to root what we say and do in reality - that is, we must root our programs and promises in the very conditions we face, and infuse in our actions and words clarity about what must be changed. We must be clear about understanding the capacities required to produce such change. It is from this interplay between a clear sense of what we seek and where we presently are that we can engender authentic hope.
If we truly want change, we must carefully harness the enthusiasm and energy emerging from the current impasse and marry it to clear-headed realism informed by our most cherish ideals. Only then we can deliver on authentic hope.