Voter Antipathy Rising – Now What?

The Washington Post released a troubling new poll this morning which captures the depth of people’s anger and disgust sweeping the country. Anti-incumbent sentiments have reached an all-time high. But no matter who wins the upcoming primaries in 12 states, the rest of us will have to deal with this antipathy as we try to get things done in our communities. Here’s how.

The Post poll reflects what so many of us already knew: business as usual will not enable us to solve problems and build stronger communities. The pervasive sense of acrimony and divisiveness throughout the country is palpable. It reminds me of when I wrote Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street in June 1991 with the Kettering Foundation. Then, as now, people were fed up with the negativity and finger pointing in politics and public life.

But there was another finding in that report that I think applies to our situation today. While people had lost faith in “politics,” they still wanted to take action in their communities. That’s still the case today. The question is how to effectively marshal this energy and create impact.

Now is the time for groups and organizations that span boundaries to step forward and bring people together across dividing lines. A key to moving beyond the antipathy is to demonstrate that it is still possible for people to come together. Be practical here and pick your partners well.

Moreover, we must identify actions that serve as positive “disruptions” to business as usual. This does not mean launching the largest initiative possible and trying to convince people that a single initiative or two can get us out of our current funk. They can’t, and won’t. Rather, the essential role of such disruptive action is to demonstrate to people that it is possible to take an alternate path. The size, shape and scope of the action are less important than its symbolic meaning and the sense of possibility it creates.

The next step is to tell a different kind of story about what we are doing. Mere public relations and communications will not satisfy what we must achieve in this toxic environment. Again our goal must be to create a disruption – to breakthrough all the noise so people notice something different and genuine is happening. This requires telling a new narrative – a story – about why you set out to do what you did, what you are achieving, where things have not worked out and why, and where you are going. In the past, I’ve talked about such stories as “civic parables.” Such parables place what is happening in the context of a narrative, one that has broader implications and lessons for what it means to step forward, take action, and go down a new path.

There is yet another telling finding from the Post poll, which is people’s growing disapproval of the tea party movement. The poll found that one-half of Americans now express an “unfavorable impression.” To me, the growing antipathy toward incumbents, anger about the direction of the country, and, now, increasing disapproval of the so-called tea party, suggests that people are looking for an alternative. Anger alone is not enough.

And yet look at the upcoming primaries and you’ll find many candidates merely offering up more acrimony and divisiveness. Just when people thought politics could not – and would not – stoop to new lows, we have found that anything is possible.

So be it, anything is possible. Which means that if you and I and others step forward to offer an alternative to business as usual, if we are prepared to offer clear disruptions to current maladies, and if we brave enough to tell a different story, then it is possible to break through. Now is the perfect time.