How to re-engage and mobilize Americans

Last week I told you that I had “banned” the phrase “civic engagement” from the Institute’s work and I got quite a reaction – some in support, others not. My point was simply that engagement needs to be more about people and impact, and less about endless discussions over inputs and process. For people in the country want to re-engage and get to work; at issue is our response.

We sit amid the morass of a continuing recession, two wars, and the BP oil disaster, to mention just the highlights of the nation’s current challenges. As I travel the country, there is a deepening sense the nation is barreling off course. People are searching for, well… a sense of “hope.” But experience tells us that the upcoming mid-term elections won’t be the tonic. They will surely produce more cynical electoral maneuvering from both sides of the aisle and from all quarters (including the so-called Tea Party).

The current path doesn’t bode well for our collective mood. Some observers are comparing this period to the 1970s when then President Carter gave his infamous “malaise speech.” In yesterday’s New York Times, the columnist Ross Douthat wrote about a growing “pessimism bubble” that, much like a contagion, is spreading throughout the country and taking on a life of its own. Douthat suggested that a little optimism would do us all good. His point: we should take comfort from the nation’s record of bouncing back from bad times.

But where will this optimism come from? From the people, I say. But nothing is automatic, and unless we take decisive action, such optimism will not materialize.

Wherever I go people express deep frustration, even anger about corporate wrong-doing, double-talking politicians and problems such as the BP oil crisis where it seems no one is in charge. The current state of affairs, on one level, is the continuation of many years of people’s disgust with politics and public life – where their reality was constantly distorted, and where they felt little control over what is happening around them.

And yet, on another level, there is something totally different at work nowadays – something we can productively tap into. More than at any other time I’ve been working in politics and public life, people today want to re-engage and reconnect with each other. There is a genuine hunger to be part of something larger than ourselves. People want to come back into community life.

People’s desires transcend politics. This urge is not about the election of one individual or another, though that’s certainly important to people. Rather, what I hear is people talking the ways in which we choose to live with one another and the fundamental nature of community. I do not pretend to know where all this is heading and where it will end up.

But what I do know is that people want to get to work – with their neighbors, their friends, their co-workers, and their fellow community members. They want to make a real difference. They want to make a dent in the challenges before us. In short, they want to help change the very trajectory of the country.

There’s more than enough work to do in our country – from supporting returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, to cleaning up oil-stained beaches, to truly working with kids to gain a leg up in school and at home. We need to mobilize our nation to do the nation’s work. This will require that we genuinely engage people in conversation about setting a common purpose for taking action – and then creating ways to act. For it is only through our joint efforts that we can do meaningful things, be part of something larger than ourselves, and regain some semblance of control over our future. It is then that we will burst through the pessimism bubble and generate real hope.