A lawyer once asked Jesus of Nazareth what one must do to be on the path of righteousness. Jesus answered with two challenges: first, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart,” and second, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer responded, as lawyers tend to do, with a meticulous question about particular definitions, asking Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” This happened to be one of the most important clarifying questions in world history. To answer it, Jesus launched into a parable, one which two millennia later, is perhaps his most beloved: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here’s how it goes (paraphrased from Luke 10:25-37):
There’s a man walking on a road to Jericho. He’s attacked by robbers, stripped of clothes and left for dead. One guy walks passed him. Another guy walks passed him. Everybody walks passed him… except for one guy, the Good Samaritan, who, instead of walking passed him, walked up to him, bandaged him up, took him on his own donkey and brought him to an inn. He gave the innkeeper money to look after him and said he would be back to check on him.
Jesus ended his parable with a question for the lawyer: “Who was being the most neighborly to the stranger?” The lawyer responded, “The one who had mercy on him… the one who entered into his troubles.” Then Jesus advised: “Go and do likewise.”
In his speech this week marking a hundred days in office, Donald Trump read from the lyrics of a song, “The Snake,” a riff he had perfected in his 2016 campaign stump speech. Here’s how the song goes:
“On her way to work one morning, down the path alongside the lake, a tender-hearted woman saw a poor half-frozen snake. His pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew; ‘Oh well,’ she cried, ‘I’ll take you in and I’ll take care of you.’ ‘Take me in tender woman; take me in, for heaven’s sake; take me in, tender woman,’ sighed the snake. She wrapped him up all cozy in a comforter of silk and laid him by her fireside with some honey and some milk. She hurried home from work that night and, soon as she arrived, she found that pretty snake she’d taken to had been revived. She clutched him to her bosom: ‘you’re so beautiful,’ she cried. ‘But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died.’ She stroked his pretty skin again and kissed and held him tight. Instead of saying thanks, the snake gave her a vicious bite. ‘I saved you,” cried the woman. ‘And you’ve bitten me, but why? You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die.’ ‘Oh shut up, silly woman,’ said the reptile with a grin.‘You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.’”
The message of Trump’s parable is not just opposed to Jesus’ parable– it is, in fact, the direct inverse of it. Jesus’ lesson is that we should turn the strangers we encounter into neighbors by reaching out a helping hand. Trump’s lesson is that to help a stranger is foolish, for people from outside groups possess certain inherently dangerous qualities, just like animals.
With his parable, Trump is not only failing to practice tenderness– he is actively condemning it. As Pope Francis explained in his TED talk this past week, tenderness “is the love that comes close and becomes real.” To be tender is “to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other… to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.” It is to be “on the same level as the other,” lowering ourselves, as God has, so that we can best speak “the real, concrete language of love.” Loving one another, acknowledging one another, listening to one another, humbling ourselves to care for one another… this is what Trump is rejecting when he mocks the tender-hearted.
Francis reminds us that “tenderness is not weakness… it is fortitude.” Tenderness is the path that “the strongest, most courageous men and women” choose. To be unable to practice tenderness is, in fact, a sure sign of weakness. And when power is bestowed on men who are too weak to practice tenderness, Francis warns, bad things happen.
A weak man can be neighborly to those who are exactly like him. A weak people can hold together a nation where everybody looks and thinks and acts the same.
But the challenge and promise of America is that we don’t look and think and act the same. To be held together as a nation, we need to do the hard work of turning strangers into neighbors. To do this work, we need to be strong… strong enough to practice tenderness. This is the work of mercy that makes a country what it is: not the thickening of its outlines, but the deepening of its solidarity. We are fortified as a country by our open hearts, not our closed borders.
If I die from a snake bite, so be it. We’re all going to die some day. We can’t control how or when it happens, no matter how much security we have. What we can control is how we live while we are alive. And I would rather die as a neighbor than live as a stranger.
(originally published in the Falls Church News-Press)
In the late 1950s, the social critic Paul Goodman tasked himself with figuring out why so many young people were failing to adjust to society and instead turning to lives of, as it was called back then, “juvenile delinquency.” Whereas many had already put forth their own culprits – rock and roll, Soviets, soft fathers, etc. – Goodman’s conclusion would stand out because he would be the first to argue, shockingly, that perhaps society was not worth adjusting to. Goodman titled his “report” Growing Up Absurd and made the case that the white picket fence lifestyle that kids were failing to prepare for was neither meaningful nor enlivening. Later on, Martin Luther King echoed Goodman, telling young people that they should be “proud to be maladjusted” to common evils like bigotry, poverty, and militarism.
Because of teachers like Goodman and King, a generation built an alternative to their parents’ suffocating Mad Men culture. But, as happens with the passage of time, when my generation reached high school, new absurdities had cropped up. To be a well-adjusted Millennial teen was to curate your individual identity at the shopping mall, praise the profiteers of the latest digital distractions, and study hard in school so as to “compete in the global economy.” When we resisted this path, most adults told us: there is no alternative.
However, if you were lucky enough to wander into the social studies wing at George Mason High School over the past 18 years, there was always an alternative waiting for you. There was someone there who would encourage you to listen to that voice whispering from your social conscience. There was a teacher there who saw education not as the pouring of the previous generation’s knowledge into the next generation’s empty heads, but rather as the sparking of our curiosity and moral imagination. His name is Jamie Scharff and he is retiring this year after 29 years of service.
Scharff avoided the pitfalls of the run-of-the-mill gadfly teacher. First, he did not hide his beliefs behind a faux neutrality. In fact, everyone at school knew what he thought about things. But he would not let us take his word for it and would follow up any opinion with ardent recommendations of books to read, documentaries to watch and thinkers to check out if we wanted to learn more.
Second, Scharff never let his students get cynical. He always paired criticism of the latest modern absurdity with positive alternatives of communities fighting back. Some days it was documentaries on worker cooperatives. Other days it was articles on indigenous communities fighting climate change. Sometimes it was Scharff’s own choices, like when he would explain why he taught a certain way or how his house’s geothermal system worked. Perhaps my favorite example is how, whenever a quiz bowl tournament got too competitive – Scharff was the coach of Mason’s team (and, yes, there is a funny irony to a teacher who despises fact-based education coaching a sport based on memorizing facts) – Scharff would call the team into a huddle and pretend to draw out basketball plays to run, a reminder that we were all there – in the tournament, and perhaps on this Earth, generally – to have fun, learn, and work together.
Just like how Kafka’s distinct style earned him his own adjective, Scharff’s blend of social criticism, humane hope and hearty jokes did, too. Over the years, I have often heard Mason alumni refer to certain challenges to the conventional wisdom as “Scharffish.” And perhaps Scharff’s greatest legacy is the hundreds of students who are bringing Scharffish perspectives to their work around the world. Ralph Nader (who Scharff turned us on to) once said that “the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” And that’s just what Scharff did.
Pete Seeger (who Scharff introduced to us, too, of course) used to share a parable about a big seesaw. The side of the seesaw on the ground had rocks of injustice on it. The end in the air had a basket quarter-filled with sand. Some people, Seeger explained, have teaspoons and are trying to fill up the basket, one teaspoon of sand at a time. Most people are scoffing at them, saying they are putting in all this work and nothing is changing. But one day, Seeger reminds us, that basket is going to be so full that the whole seesaw is going to flip in the other direction. And people are going to ask, “how did it happen so suddenly?” The answer, of course, is: all those teaspoons over the years.
One day, some of my generation’s seesaws will flip and we will overcome a few of the unjust absurdities of our day. When people ask how it happened, here’s the answer: the countless teaspoons from people like Jamie Scharff.
Much ink has been spilled about what Democrats can do to win back the Rust Belt voters who switched from voting Obama in 2012 to voting Trump in 2016. Unfortunately, not enough focus has been given to a group that might be easier to reach in the coming years: young eligible voters who chose not to vote at all. Half of all Millennials stayed home on Election Day, a phenomenon that assuredly drove the election’s outcome: while Trump won Seniors 52%-45%, Trump lost Millennials 37%-55%. If Democrats want to win the next election, they would be smart to think about what would motivate those 24 million young people who last year’s candidates failed to inspire to vote.
When confronted with this challenge, party strategists tend to employ two misguided strategies. Their first strategy is to deploy what I call “civic engagement finger-wagging”: criticizing young people’s disengagement by appealing to platitudes about the almost-religious importance of voting (like “people died so that you could vote” or “It doesn’t matter who you vote for: just vote!”).
This strategy is ineffective, because people do not vote because they care about voting: they vote because they care about the deeper projects for which their votes stand. To be invested in voting, you have to be invested in a direction in which you want the country to move. To be invested in a direction in which your country could move, you have to be invested in your country. If we do not connect young people to their country — by engaging them in the public life of their own neighborhoods and towns — and if we do not empower young people to imagine themselves as being able to lead their country in a fresh direction — by respecting their ideas and fostering their initiatives — then young people will never become invested in voting.
A second misguided strategy that politicians use to motivate Millennials is to highlight political issues in which Millennials, they perceive, have a self-interest. They think they will win over Millennials by, say, talking about the national debt (“you know, you’re going to have to pay for this one day!”) or narrowly focusing on, say, student loans or legalizing pot.
This is also ineffective, because it appeals to young people as self-centered consumers rather than as moral-centered citizens. Our consumer preferences might motivate us to buy one toothbrush over another, but they will not motivate us to participate in something as beautifully irrational as casting our lone ballot in with millions of others. To vote, we need to first become part of something bigger than ourselves, a process which requires politicians to appeal, in Lincoln’s words, to “the better angels of our nature.”
The great sociologist Emile Durkheim warned of two paths to societal unhappiness. One was insufficient individualism: society requesting too much of its members and overwhelming people. We all know about the dangers of this type of society: our culture is replete with tales of iconoclastic individuals liberating themselves from the constraints of oppressive roles.
Durkheim’s other unfortunate path, however, is much less discussed. This is the path of “anomie” or excessive individualism: society providing little moral guidance to individuals, because the bonds of community, mentorship, care, and responsibility had broken down. Millennials today, perhaps more than any other generation, suffer under a state of anomie. We are given infinite choice and total consumer freedom. But we yearn for solidarity: a sense of belonging and purpose. If done in a spirit of solidarity, politics has the potential to be be one antidote to our generational isolation and drift.
Perhaps a lesson can be drawn from the story of civic organizations in the past decades. When mid-century community groups were seeing declining numbers, civic leaders split on what to do to stop the bleeding. Half of the organizations thought the best way forward was to ask less of their members: to loosen each members’ required commitments by demanding less time and less effort from each of them. The other half thought the best way was to ask more of their members: to re-affirm members’ required commitments by calling for more time and more effort from them. Surprisingly, organizations that loosened their requirements continued to wither and organizations who re-affirmed their requirements became vibrant again. Indeed, people are drawn to groups that demand enough of them to become a part of their identity.
If we are to meet the immense public challenges of our age, we young people need to make long-term civic commitments. Fortunately, as many of our elders know, these day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out, decade-in-decade-out commitments are a path to great joy. We need their help to teach us of what the poet Jack Gilbert put best: “not the marvelous act” but “the beauty that is of many days… the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.”
I, like many of you, have spent the past month taking a deep dive into what the heck is going on with American politics. I am going to write something longer in due time, but for now, below are five ideas, inspired by the best takes I have read so far. My hope is they can help shed light on where to go and what to do next.
#1. We should understand the border war as the new culture war
American politics since the 1970’s has stabilized around two party coalitions. The quick way to describe the two has always been: a Republican Party that paired (1) economic liberalism with (2) cultural traditionalism and a Democratic Party that paired (1) economic regulation and public benefits with (2) cultural modernism. The domestic fights were generally culture war fights (gay marriage, English Only, flag burning, etc.) and regulation and public benefits fights (the Endangered Species Act, welfare reform, Obamacare, etc.).
A more nuanced take is to look at who won the day on each of these debates and see how the parties responded to those ascendancies.
By the 1990’s, economic liberalism had become dominant. A Democratic President had declared “The Era of Big Government is Over,” corporate-driven free trade was being promoted by both parties, and expanding Medicare to cover everyone was pushed out of the national debate. To those on the Left, the Democratic Party, as Roberto Unger once put it, ceased to have its own economic program — say, muscular unionism, anti-monopoly policies, serious welfare programs — and began solely providing a humanizing face to the corporate capitalist program of its Republican adversaries.
By the 2010’s, cultural modernism had become dominant. Fighting against women in the workplace became bizarre, powerful institutions – in tech, Hollywood, and business – became bulwarks of gay rights, and appealing to a multicultural America became the interest of future-thinking leaders in both parties (remember, the Spanish-speaking Bush family attempted to make inroads into the Hispanic vote in the 2000’s). To traditionalists, the Republican Party ceased to have a muscular cultural program and began solely providing a nationalist face to the cultural modernist program of its Democratic adversaries.
So, during the Obama era, the party coalitions were organized as follows: most Republicans advancing a muscularly liberal economic program and figuring out what to do with its losing cultural program and most Democrats advancing a muscularly modern cultural program and figuring out what to do with its losing economic program.
However, this situation created a vacuum, for there are millions of Americans that are not ready to give up the culture war and, in fact, can become very passionate about being the underdog fighters in it. Plus, there are tens of millions of Americans who are less in favor of muscular economic liberalism than Republican party elites are.
Seizing this vacuum is, in fact, how the last Republican President won. George W. Bush ran on a program of (1) fighting vigorously for the religious side of the culture war and (2) tempering the cruel elements of Republican economic liberalism. He even branded the two sides together into “Compassionate Conservatism.” This revved up evangelicals, won over suburban moms, and – because he chose to emphasize the religious aspects of the culture war and not the ethnic aspects – even won him a serious share of Hispanic voters.
This is exactly what Trump did, too, except with a 2016 twist. Instead of emphasizing the religious aspects of the culture war, he emphasized the ethnic aspects, trading a culture war for a border war. This way, he was able to fight the losing side of a culture war without quixotically fighting, say, gay rights or women in the workplace explicitly. (Meanwhile, he could wink at remaining religious conservatives by picking Mike Pence as his VP). Similarly, he tempered Republican economic liberalism, but instead of talking about faith-based programs for the poor (like Bush had), he talked about trade deals, infrastructure-based job programs, and preserving entitlemens, like Social Security and Medicare. Just like Bush, he was able to brand his cultural radicalism and economic heterodoxy together into one message: “America First.” This revved up white nationalists, did not scare off suburban moms, inspired those who had lost their manufacturing jobs, and even won him a serious share of secular voters.
Two things happened with Bush’s coalition after Election Day: (1) Bush eventually gave up on his economic moderation (continuing, rather than mitigating, Reaganite defunding, deregulation, tax cuts, and military spending) and (2) Bush used the culture war as a lever — through, for example, state gay marriage ballot initiatives — to rev up his coalition and win re-election in 2004.
We should look to Trump also (1) giving up on his economic nationalism and (2) surfacing a losing border war — through, say, border walls, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and reviving “English Only” policies — to rev up his coalition.
#2. We should engage and empower blue collar youth of all races
Much ink has been spilled on how the Democrats lost power because they lost the white working class vote. It’s true: Trump beat Clinton by a much wider margin than Romney beat Obama among white voters without a college degree. 34% percent of the Obama coalition was white voters without a college degree — a larger portion of the coalition than black voters, Hispanic voters, or well-educated white voters — and Clinton was not able to reassemble that column of the Obama coalition. Much of this is due to young Northern white voters without a college degree: Obama beat McCain by almost 20 points among 18-to-29-year-old Northern white working class voters while Clinton did not even beat Trump among that group.
However, the white working class was not the only group to relatively disengage from the Democratic Party in 2016. There was also a considerable decline — 5-10% — in black voter turnout. Restrictive voter ID laws do not account for this decline: turnout dropped consistently across the country, including an 8% drop in turnout in majority black wards of Philadelphia and 47,000 fewer voters cast for Clinton in Detroit (which is 82% black) than for Obama four years earlier.
Two groups within the demographic especially account for the decline: young black voters and black voters without a college degree. Young black voters made up 46 percent of black registered voters who did not turn out to vote in 2016. This is likely driven by favorability: Clinton’s favorable rating was 10% lower among the youngest black voters as among the oldest. In majority-minority communities with high education levels, Clinton beat Trump by wider margins than Obama beat Romney. But in majority-minority communities with lower education levels, Clinton won by an average of only 7 percentage points, three points less than Obama’s margin of victory in 2012.
This storyline is not covered by the media as much, because these black voters did not switch their allegiance to Trump– they simply disengaged from casting a ballot for Clinton. Because this storyline is not covered, Democratic strategists are centering their future plans on appealing only to young blue collar voters who are white, without considering what they can do to better appeal to young blue collar voters who are balck. So, I raise this all not to say anything critical of either of these groups– it is the job of a party to engage voters with it’s program, not the job of the voters to get in line. I raise this because who a party identifies as disengaging from them is who that party chooses to adjust themselves to the next election cycle. The Democratic Party thus should adjust itself to better engage all young blue collar voters — white and black — in the next election cycle. A revival of Bobby Kennedy’s “black-and-blue” rhetoric — appealing to black and white, urban and rural wage workers with neighborhood values (family, church, community) and practical economic power (minimum wage, benefits, unionization) — might do the trick.
#3. We should opt for hitting Trump directly, rather than technically
14% of the electorate in 2016 — 18 million voters — found both candidates unqualified for office. This group — the fully disillusioned — broke heavily for Trump: 69% to 15%. Trump and his cronies are mud kings — if the game is tit-for-tat, they win. That’s why they love muddying up the waters: if they are attacked for something, they attack back relentlessly until there is so much chaos that people do not know who to trust.
This is why I am very skeptical of Trump criticism that hits him on minor technicalities, like his improper procedures, his breaking of decorum, his spelling, his bizarre style choices, his manner of speaking, or his misunderstanding of history. When we hit him on minor technicalities, we play into his game. First, by criticizing minor aspects of his proposals — for example, the countries he has chosen for his refugee ban — we appear to be endorsing the general thrust of his proposals. Second, by criticizing his style choices, we play into his narrative that he is the forgotten man’s hero who disturbs elites by breaking stupid rules for the sake of helping the people. It would not surprise me if we found out that he intentionally misspells words or misquotes history just to bait his opponents into getting into the tit-for-tat mud pit with him.
The better way to take him on is to just clearly and consistently hit him at the deeper level: the immorality and misdirection of his leadership. Trump is not bad because he is boorish — we would love a goofy President who supported good policies. Trump is bad because he is (1) leading our country in the wrong direction; and (2) he is lying about it.
That’s why we should hit him at these deeper levels, by consistently and powerfully repeating (1) a diverse nationalism based in patriotic solidarity is better than a walled-off nationalism based in chaotic fear and (2) economic and political power should be decentralized among the many rather than concentrated among the few, while repeatedly reminding everyone that (3) Trump is a con artist who only cares about himself.
So, the next time Trump mispells a word in a tweet, ignores a procedural precedent or even posts a picture of a taco bowl, we should resist the urge to play into his hands and correct his technical mistake. Rather, we should repeat the big messages: Down with Fearmongers, Up with Solidarity; Down with Oligarchs, Up with Democracy; Down with Con Artists, Up with Patriots.
#4. We should see the acute emergency as the face of a long emergency
It is understandable that some see Trumpism as a uniquely sinister force that has come out of nowhere. Some think the strategy should be to paint Trump as an acute emergency for America that stands outside of normal politics.
However, no matter what might be strategically best, the truth remains that the acute emergency of Trumpism is a symptom of a longer national emergency. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush also appointed corporate insiders to lead the departments of government tasked with overseeing corporate regulation. The Republican Party has been unable to build an internal coalition to partner with Democrats to pass immigration reform throughout the 2000s. When the world was called on to help Syrian refugees last year, 30 governors called for the U.S. to turn them away. The 114th Congress had 182 climate change deniers in it. The Senate Majority Leader has made it his life work to dismantle any campaign finance barriers to converting economic wealth into political power. The Speaker of the House rose to power because he drafted a tremendously unpopular and unfeasible budget that would cripple Medicare, end federal medical research, stop federal food inspection, cease college tuition aid, and cut support for the health care of the quarter of American children in poverty, all for the sake of lowering the taxes of millionaires and billionaires. Indeed, Trumpism is not the first powerful menace in recent American politics.
If we solve the acute emergency, we are still left with the long emergency, which will assuredly produce more powerful acute emergencies in due time. Just as “a house divided against itself” could not stand 150 years ago, a house so lacking in solidarity — between the races, between the parties, between the haves and the have-nots, being the cities and the country — cannot stand today. If Trump does not destroy us, the next, more suave con artist will.
As those recently mobilized by the thuggish and shocking face of our collective isolation begin to see that solving the acute emergency will not solve the long emergency, they will lose their fervor. That’s why it is imperative that we use this moment to not just fight Trump, not just fight Trumpism…but to fight the sickness itself and plant the seeds of the antidotes to the long-emergency: the seeds of more solidarity, the seeds of more sustainability. the seeds of more democracy.
#5. We should turn mobilization into institutionalization
Mobilization might just solve the acute emergency. Twitter and Facebook can, as we saw in Tahrir Square a few years ago, turn out crowds at a moment’s notice. As Trump continues to misfire, the waves of crowds and calls to Congress will only grow. But as we also learned from Tahrir Square, mobilization might have been enough to topple a dictator but was not enough to prevent another from rising up.
That is why we need to turn mobilization into institutionalization: we who show up to ralliers need to get onto lists and into weekly meetings. We need to get to know each, build trust, and establish routines of engagement. We need to mix the large group work of turning out for big rallies with the small group work of learning about particular issues. All of the groups we are praising in the Era of Trump — Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, CAIR… even the federal judiciary itself — are the product of civic leaders who turned the spark of mobilization into institutions that are so lasting that they show up 100 years later. We must fight the long emergency with civic institutions built for the long-run.
So let’s not just tear down the wall this year… let’s build the foundation.
My favorite high school teacher has this poster in his classroom: “Don’t just do something, sit there.” It’s a wise message for the first week after the crisis: I worry if we jump into “The Response Plan” too early, we will repeat the same mistakes that brought us here. You can already see it happening in our newsfeeds, as everyone’s plan for the Age of Trump seems to be: “Everybody just needs to double down on my worldview.” Carving out time for reflection in spaces outside of campaign politics—reading spiritual books rather than pundits’ hot takes, watching a play rather than a cable news show, reaching out to real people rather than ranting about the latest stranger’s horrible comment thread—is crucial if we hope to shine a path out of here.
I also, however, believe in Roberto Unger’s insight about hope and action: “It is a common mistake to suppose that hope is the cause of action. Hope is the consequence of action. You act, and as a result, you begin to hope.”
So, this week, what then should we do? My proposal: alongside carving out time for reflection and offering immediate care to our neighbors, we should spend this week making a commitment. Concretely, we should make a commitment to a certain amount of time and a certain amount of money that we are ready to consistently give to our country in the coming years. Very specifically, we should each commit to a number of hours we are ready to give each week and a percentage of our paycheck we are ready to give each month.
See, in the end, the projects we care about survive on time and money. Some projects are more time-based and some projects are more money-based, but the same rule applies to all civic projects: if they lose hours and lose cash, they die. If they gain hours and gain cash, they grow.
We have a choice of how we want to primarily express our citizenship in the coming years: through virtue signaling or through civic work.
The Age of Trump will give us endless opportunities to signal our virtue. Each scandal will give us an opportunity to broadcast our rejection of Trumpism and validate our place among the redeemed.
Vocalized resistance to Trumpism is part of the path forward, but it is only a small part. The idea that there is an elect few who are aware and innocent of social sin is wrong and dangerous. We all are susceptible to the patterns of thought and action that produce our social ills. To think that it is only the others, over there, who have fallen to racism and materialism and militarism is to ignore our own weaknesses and to distract ourselves from preventing our own worst impulses from festering. The greatest atrocities in human history have been committed by those who believed themselves to be the chosen moral few, set apart from the “vulgar mob.”
That’s why the center of our citizenship in the Age of Trump must instead be civic work: real time and real money being given to real groups working on real projects aimed at ameliorating real problems. The rate at which these projects will grow and these problems will be addressed—the rate at which we will overcome Trumpism and get back on track towards that kind and welcoming America we believe in—will be determined by how much time and how much money we give: by how many hours we give each week and by how much of our paychecks we give each month.
So, what then should we do this week? Here’s two concrete steps:
This week, get together with your friends and family to make your patriotic commitments: pledge to each other how many hours each week and how much of your paycheck each month you are ready to give. If you can, lock in a specific time each week (“Saturday mornings” “Wednesday and Thursday nights”) for your hours at first: you’re more likely to keep your pledge if you develop a weekly routine.
Next week, spend the first hours of your time commitment thinking about which civic arena you want to serve and act in. If you are lost as to where to get involved, one way to orient yourself is to think about three different types of civic arenas: communities, issues, and institutions.
One way to get involved is to draw closer to a community: to get more deeply involved in the lives and struggles of, say, a neighborhood or a town, an immigrant community or a religious community, an age group or a special affinity group. It’s to become more invested in your town’s Iraq War veterans community or Somali immigrant community or small business community. It’s to step up in your church or at your school or on your block. It’s to think about the hopes and needs of the elderly or of foster kids or of prisoners in your state.
A second way to get involved is to draw closer to an issue: to become obsessed with a public policy area. You’d be surprised how much of an impact you can have by spending a year getting into the weeds of an issue, keeping up with the issue in the news, raising awareness about it with your community, and getting involved with political action surrounding it. The more narrow you get with the issue you choose, the more national your scope can be. The more local you get with the scope you choose, the more broader your issue area can be.
A third way to get involved is to draw closer to an institution: to play a part in crafting how, say, our press, our universities, our government agencies, our school systems, our religious institutions, our unions, our political parties, our legal systems, or our medical systems can better live out and extend their missions of serving the public interest. We need civic innovators and institutional revivalists now, more than ever in our lifetimes.
Now that you have hours committed each week, you have time to take test-drives to find which of these civic arenas is the best fit for you. Civic action has a momentum to it: dip your toes in and you will be swept up.
It is through our example—our example of what the Good America looks like—that we will overcome the Age of Trump. They shall know us by our fruits.
What America needed more than anything from this election was solidarity: the feeling that we are all in this together, that we have a shared direction, that we have found common ground. Instead, the greatest threat in our lifetime to our national solidarity—to our neighborliness, to our decency, to our commitment to shared endeavors—has arrived. We thought we were better than this. But we have been blindsided. And we are confused and afraid.
When we are confused and afraid, we are tempted by twin evils.
First, we are tempted to quit. We are tempted to run away to Canada, or run away to irony, or run away to fantasy. We are tempted to hide away and build our bunkers.
Second, we are tempted to blame. We are tempted to search for our scapegoats and fall guys. We are tempted to tie some people and groups to the whipping posts and place our hurt onto them.
Our first task on this dark week is to resist these immediate temptations.
Today, we don’t need quitters, we need patriots. Before we are activists, we are citizens. Before we are citizens, we are neighbors. Before we can change a community, we must be a member of it. And to be a member of a community is to love it: to not quit it when it needs you the most.
Today, we don’t need blame, we need direction. We know one way these next few years could go: with every Trump scandal, we could re-litigate the campaign, going back and forth on whether Hillary Clinton or Jill Stein, Julian Assange or James Comey, Bernie Sanders or Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is the most to blame. But if we want to get out of this mess, we need to go another way: to take time to reflect on these past years and develop a positive direction towards a better Democratic Party, a better progressive movement, and a better liberal culture.
Our second task on this dark week is to remember the message that gave us Hope almost a decade ago: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
Next week, we still have many of the same challenges that we had last week. Our economy still leaves a quarter of our children in poverty. Our criminal justice system still cages two million human beings. One in four Americans still say that they have “no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs.” Our Congress is still being corrupted by monied interests. And our climate is still changing.
Even in the Age of Trump—especially in the Age of Trump—we must not cease being the change that we seek in these arenas. These projects—of turning strangers into neighbors, of making the economy work for everybody, and of freeing our democracy from the grip of money—need more of our hands and hearts and heads. If you have never participated in civic life before or devoted a couple of hours a week to public projects before, now is the time to step up.
Additionally, of course, over the coming months and years, there will be more grave challenges that arise out of the Age of Trump. Brave patriots will set up projects of resistance to secure the protection of the vulnerable, the empowerment of the marginalized, and the preservation of our precious inheritances.
These projects of resistance will especially need our help. Now is the time to report for duty.
Our final task on this dark morning is to commit to live out, in our own lives and communities, our vision of what we believe the Good America could look like. We have lost the White House, the Congress, and the Courts. But we have not lost our lives, our neighborhoods, and our communities. We have not lost the example we can set with ourselves, our friends, and our neighbors of the type of country we want to live in.
If we believe in a welcoming America, we can practice hospitality with all our hearts. If we believe in a decent America, we can practice decency with our hearts. If we believe in a fair America, we can practice fairness with all our hearts. We can bind together with others who believe in that same America– the America that sees itself as Great only when it is Good.
President Trump can’t stop us from showing this country what the politics of joy and justice looks like. President Trump can’t stop us from showing this world what the Good America—the America of extraordinary ordinary citizens practicing open-hearted devotion and practical creativity in neighborhoods all across the country — looks like.
It is through our example that we will overcome the Age of Trump.
This week, we should think about how we, personally, want to live out the Good America during the next four years. In my own path towards living it out, I turn to Francis– the pope and the saint.
Pope Francis once said that the thing he thought his church needed most was “the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful… nearness, proximity.” He said he wanted his church to be “a field hospital after battle.” He explained: “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds… start from the ground up.”
There are a lot of wounds in this country. There were wounds before last night and there sure as hell are a lot more wounds after last night. In the Good America that I believe in, we would be like Francis’ field hospitals for each other: we would draw nearer to each other rather than fear each other; we would tend to each other’s wounds before we sneer at each other’s deficiencies. In the Age of Trump, I hope we can show our country what great field hospitals we can be.
St. Francis put it even better, centuries ago:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
What America still needs more than anything is solidarity. I have immense faith that we can build it. But, now more than ever, we are reminded that it will take hard work.
Tomorrow, the second Wednesday in November, is the eight year anniversary of our generation’s biggest political mistake.
In early 2008, a young senator from Illinois gave us a warning. “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time,” he told us. “We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
The day after we elected Barack Obama president, we decided to ignore his message. We treated Election Day as the end, rather than the beginning, of our Work. We packed up our “Yes We Can!” signs, patted ourselves on the back for making history, and waited for the Change we were promised.
But the Change didn’t come. Sure, a heck of a lot of progress was made — just ask someone who can now get married or who now has health insurance — but the deep Change we dreamed of in 2008 — a change in the way the political game was played, a fresh faith in government, a united country — never materialized. Disappointment and disillusionment abounds.
See, the young senator’s warning was right: change did not come from waiting for some other person, even if that person was an the honorable President. The hope we were waiting for, the change that we sought, remained ourselves, the citizens. But we did not learn this important lesson in time for our first presidency.
Today, eight years later, we vote again. And tomorrow, we decide if we repeat our mistake with our second presidency. This week is our test: did we learn our lesson?
Donald Trump is the candidate of repeating our mistake. Americans feel like we don’t have a voice. In response, Donald Trump has said “I am your voice.” Americans feel like our system is broken. In response, Donald Trump has said “I alone can fix it.”.
To elect someone who believes such things — and is shameless enough to say them out loud — is to disrespect ourselves, to abdicate our dominion, and to run away from our Work. It would be a failure to remember, as President Obama often reminds us, “that America is not about what can be done for us…it is about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”
Today, to affirmatively reject “I am your voice” and “I alone can fix it” at the polls will be a beautiful way to bury our mistake– a testament to our refreshed memory that only we are our voice and that only we, together, can fix our broken system.
But tomorrow is the real test. It’s when we decide, once again, if Election Day was the end or the beginning of the Work.
There is a lot of apocalyptic talk about the coming weeks. Flights to Canada and stocking up canned goods in bunkers and the like. We should cut that out. I am reminded of the Bob Dylan song, “Let Me Die In My Footsteps”:
I will not go down under the ground.
‘Cause somebody tells me that death’s coming round.
I will not carry myself down to die.
When I go to my grave, my head will be high.
Let me die in my footsteps
before I go down under the ground.
I don’t know if I’m smart but I think I can see
When someone is pulling the wool over me.
And if the war comes and death’s all around.
Let me die on this land ‘fore I die underground.
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground.
If “I am your voice” and “I alone can fix it” wins, I’m not flying to Canada or going underground… I’m showing up for Work.
And if he loses, I’m showing up for Work, too. There are too many wounds that need healing, too many problems that need fixing, too many projects that need heads, hands and hearts, and too many strangers that need neighbors to not show up for Work, no matter who wins. Because, in the end, our Work, not our President, will determine our destiny.
Hillary Clinton is right when she says “America is great because America is good.” I have faith in my fellow Americans that we will make the right decision, today and tomorrow. I have faith in my fellow Americans that we will die on this land ‘fore we die underground.
At the Progressive Alternative, our initiative to broaden the vision and restore the integrity of the Democratic Party, we mention “building national solidarity” as one of our planks:
Build Programs for National Solidarity: National solidarity should be promoted through broader opportunities and stronger incentives to spend periods of one’s life engaging in American communities different than one’s own. Attempts to address national divides of race, culture, and class through the law and mass media should be supplemented with projects that encourage sustained, authentic in-person interactions in shared missions among individuals from divided groups. Such interracial, intercultural, and cross-class sports, music, conservation, education, worship, and service groups should be promoted and expanded.
With the campaign raging in the background, I just published an essay about the seriousness of this project:
Progressives are really good at identifying, analyzing and proposing specific policy solutions. Give us climate change and we’ll give you a carbon tax and solar energy subsidies. Give us police shootings and we’ll give you implicit bias training and body cameras. Give us lack of access to health insurance and we’ll give you the public option and a ban on screening for pre-existing conditions. Just watch last Monday’s debate: for every issue, Hillary Clinton had a list of three or four solutions, devised by experts and backed up by binders full of white papers.
But when it comes to the cultural phenomena that are preventing these policy solutions from getting a fair hearing in our legislatures, we turn off. When Republicans keep winning state houses, we have no words. When voters keep re-electing do-nothing Congresses, we retreat into snark. When 40% of the country thinks Donald Trump would be a good President, we are confused. When people don’t trust fact checks from the national media, we throw up our hands. It’s as if every public problem can be bent to our will, but addressing any cultural challenge is insurmountable.
These all fall under the grand project of rebuilding national solidarity: reinvigorating our shared institutions, trust and fellow-feeling so as to make us one nation again. It is the flip side of Trump’s “if we don’t have borders, we don’t have a country” riff: if we don’t have national solidarity, we don’t have a country. And solidarity does not mysteriously rise and fall: it’s a project that we have the choice to care for, work on, or let crumble.
These are the stakes of the “building programs for national solidarity” project that we included in the Strong Communities section of The Progressive AlternativeIntervention. Hillary Clinton’s recent proposal to create “a new National Service Reserve that will expand ways for young Americans to serve their communities and their country” is an ambitious and heartening example of such a program. In the Intervention, we call for supplementing “attempts to address national divides of race, culture, and class through the law and mass media” with “projects that encourage sustained, authentic in-person interactions in shared missions among individuals from divided groups.” A National Service Reserve’s expansion of volunteer service opportunities to both more young people as well as older, “encore participants” would be a step in that direction.
Read the full essay — Solidarity is a Project — here at the Progressive Alternative.
Freedom is participation in power. If we are unable to influence the social forces that affect our lives, we are not free.
But here’s the hard part: one cannot easily participate in power alone. Sustained participation — the seed of sustained freedom — requires solidarity: folks who are different being in it together.
Where solidarity erodes, participation withers and freedom dims. You can see it across the country today. Where there isn’t solidarity among neighbors, their public problems fester unchallenged, and erupt around town in the silent suffering of “personal” issues. Where there isn’t solidarity among citizens, their governments become distant and corrupted, and a tyranny of inertia leads to perpetual disappointment and popular cynicism. And where there isn’t solidarity among workers, the profit machine hums along maniacally indifferent to important human needs, and the labor and dignity of the humans who maintain it are routinely disrespected. Less solidarity means less participation means less freedom.
Ralph Nader often explains that political rights are worth nothing without remedies, which in turn are worth nothing without facilities. By the first half of this dictum, he means that a right does not mean much if you do not have a venue in which to claim that your right was breached and the possibility of a formal remedy to that breach. For example, the right to free speech means nothing if you do not have a court system in which you can claim your right to speak was breached and have a chance at the force of the courts coming to the defense of your speech.
By the second half, he means that remedies will go unused unless there are institutions organized to facilitate their use. For example, if public interest legal groups do not exist to bring free speech cases for those without the time and money to seek remedies when their free speech rights are breached, the remedy of the courts and the right to free speech might as well not exist.
A similar principle applies to solidarity and participation in power. Democratic freedom is worth nothing without venues for participation, which in turn are worth nothing without facilities for solidarity. Being a democracy does not mean much unless you have venues — like routine elections, accessible representatives, comment periods, court systems, referenda, newspapers, open markets, access to capital, a public culture, and public places — through which opportunities for participation are available. But in turn, these venues for participation will go unused unless there are facilities to foster and channel the solidarity of people.
For neighborhood solidarity, that facility is the civic group: the local organization that brings neighbors together in cheer and concern to develop and realize their public sentiments. It’s the PTA and the Lion’s Club, the Girl Scouts and the church committee.
For citizen solidarity, that facility is the grassroots political party: the federated organization that, at its best, engages its members in crafting and advancing a national vision. It’s the district captain that welcomes newly naturalized immigrants into the election process and the state platform committee that puts an exciting new idea to paper.
For worker solidarity, that facility is the union: the workplace organization that brings together workers so as to turn allegedly personal issues — your isolated wage, your isolated injury, your isolated wrongful termination, your isolated incident of sexual harassment, your isolated gripe with the boss for stealing your overtime pay — into communal issues that elicit the respect and response of the whole. It’s the groups of workers who brought us the weekend and compensation for workplace injury, health and safety standards and sexual harassment remedies, sick pay and an end to child labor, parental leave and the eight hour day.
We can see what happens when these facilities are in decline.
With no civic groups, the media takes over and we begin to understand our neighborhood problems only through the lens of abstract fights staged on screens composed by those far away.
With no grassroots political parties, the insiders take over and American party politics becomes a mix of endless visionless fundraising and cynical voter mobilization every other year.
And with no unions, the corporatists take over and the perspectives of workers are erased from public discourse: the value of entrepreneurs pushes out the value of maintainers, the needs of consumers pushes out the needs of producers, and the imperative of more jobs pushes out the imperative of better jobs.
So the next time you hear someone decry the state of the nation — the next time you hear them list off how the media and the politicians and the businessmen have ruined this place — remember two things: that the way we got into this mess is that we stopped supporting and improving the facilities designed to foster solidarity; and that the way we will get out is to revive and reinvigorate them again.
Today, on this Labor Day, let us recommit to worker solidarity, the seed of worker participation, which itself is the seed of worker freedom. And let us be grateful to the unions that have fostered it, and the Americans — like my grandfather, Joe Gubbins, a labor lawyer from Chicago — that worked for and alongside them as they won for us much of the freedom we have today.
In the words of the old labor song:
We have laid the wide foundations, built it skyward stone by stone
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own
While the union makes us strong.