“What do you think of that?”
“That ain’t weak—that’s the starting point.”
What could be said about a young child tentatively learning to box seems sadly appropriate to the state of the oldest modern democracy on the planet. It is hard to watch the current state of American politics and policy and not think “Pretty weak”—or, frankly, much worse things.
This is a problem. As Americans we excel at creating “Super”-things and believing in our own superlatives. Thus we created Superman, the Super Bowl, and Super 8 film—the last of these invented in the very town and company where my parents first met. And so our politics has Super Tuesday. But this Tuesday may not leave many Americans feeling all that super or great after all. What has gone wrong? And what can we do about this?
The causes of all this are multiple and unclear. But the reality is certainly clear. For years now, confidence in our bellwether institutions has eroded or remained dismal. People are angry, there is no question. What are at least a few of the causes?
A Spectacle None of Us Impact: Today the presidential nominations for both parties might well be basically decided. Meanwhile, two thirds of us will have had no vote in the process thus far.
Results We Can’t Believe In: The lack of democratic input would not rankle if our nation seemed well governed. Unfortunately too often it doesn’t. Costly and unproductive wars and rebuilding projects, an economy that crashed and did not recover for far too many, local projects that run longer than it took us to put a man on the moon, and endless bickering and whining among national leaders leaves us collectively scratching our head wondering “What’s gone wrong?”
No Improvement Among Our Political Apprentices: The combination of the these first two would be tolerable if we at least seemed to be headed in the right direction. But most Americans do not believe that. And in a media circus that so often seems like a reality show that astute observers wonder whether ratings aren’t driving the whole bus, people increasingly desire to tune out and drop out.
Given all this, what should we do? I’ve spent my adult life working and thinking about this challenge. I volunteered for and worked for a member of Congress. I’ve befriended city councilors and mayors. I’ve discussed matters with police and sheriffs. I got a masters of public policy from a prestigious university and worked a Senate campaign, helping elect on of only four Notre Dame graduates in history to that fine institution. I worked for a foundation with billions of dollars and one of the best crime policy scholars in the country.
I mentioned that I’ve thought about this way too much, right?
Before I get to where this is going, we need to cover certain things I know won’t happen. First, political salvation is not going to come through just one person or in just one election. Our road to this point has been long and grinding, and the road out will take time too. No great man or woman is waiting to—deus ex machina—save us from ourselves. Thankfully by the same token, no one election condemns us either.
There also will be no silver bullet. It will not be just one thing, or one product, or even one institution or company that starts putting our politics and policy on better footing. Rather politics is a team game, and it is going to take effective teams to start putting us on the right path again. At Wikipolicy we’re connecting teams of people to build a better democratic future.
But what does this mean for you? What does it mean for me? It’s pretty clear we need a new approach to politics—a new politics if you will. And we’re committed to a lean approach to democracy: we’re building, measuring, and learning as we go. But as an initial starting point, there are some actions that are doable solutions to our present problems
Focus on the Local: The first place for all of us to focus is in our own lives: only by changing our own attitudes and behavior can we hope to have any impact. Only when we’ve changed our own behavior we can focus on building broader solutions, which inevitably should start first in our local communities.
Enjoy the Ride: The gatekeepers of our democratic process—the media, especially on cable news—have proven themselves unreliable at best and pernicious at worst. But the spectacle they generate out of our national politics does have a certain entertainment and comedic value—we might as well laugh at that while we build a better future. Good-natured humor in general is a wonderful antidote to what ails us.
Connect, Learn, and Win: As stated, politics is a team activity. We need to build connections to those who share our concerns, educate ourselves on the best information on a given topic, and then go on to create change at a scale we can actually achieve. We can solve problems together, and if we can solve one problem in one community, that can most assuredly be repeated. All we need to do is build one solution in one community.
No one person can rescue us from ourselves, or our future from our present course. But together we can slowly begin to alter our common course, and so shape our ultimate destiny.
Democracy is important. Government matters. This is worth getting right—or at least as right as we can.
The critical thing through all this is to learn. Research has shown that having a growth mindset—looking to learn from setbacks, and not viewing present obstacles as permanent failures—creates better results across a variety of settings. Our current predicament and current capacities are not weak—they are just our starting point. We look forward to growing a better future for all of us.