Our story, America’s story began with a radical declaration of collective rebellion and ambition. Even before being enshrined as the opening word of our Constitution, “we” was the starting point for every conversation, every impulse, every ambition — a statement of collective defiance. That foundational expression of unity — unprecedented for its time — became the opening declaration of our national identity: We the people.
We, Americans, claimed freedom: self-determination against tyranny, corruption, monopoly, and monarchy. We created a government of servants of and to the people to ensure our collective liberty — inspired by duty and sacrifice and the ironclad conviction that we could only stand against the inertia of history together. And, while we also celebrate and protect individual liberty, our nation is predicated on this collective striving — our success is our success.
This fundamental idea has been lost. While our original implementation was flawed by lack of inclusion and the glaring injustice of slavery, our idea of the power of a shared community has been shattered, buried by unproductive partisanship and uncertainty about our future that has resulted in a widespread sense of anxiety and distrust in our political institutions and politicians. This anxiety we feel is a form of tyranny, a collective loss of liberty just as sure as autocracy. And our collective anxiety about our place in the future, about lack of opportunity for our families, about the uneven costs of innovation drives the rise of populism, nationalism, the epidemic of self-medication, and the curse of us-versus-them otherness that fragments our collective purpose.
We must remind ourselves of our original inspiration, and we need leaders who spur our confidence and renew our faith in the moments when the pace of change leaves us feeling like the ground is moving beneath our feet. We crave lives of dignity, ideals that matter, and beliefs that animate our hearts. We hear from the callous and careless that these things don’t matter, that ideas like these are childish, that somehow we’ve outgrown them. Denigrating the things that inspire us most makes us cynical and pliable, makes us easy to manipulate and manage, makes us willing to swallow unpalatable truths in the form of compromise and calculation.
Reclaiming our democracy requires an immediate and forceful intervention: reclaiming the joy and earnestness of public service; re-embracing the essential unity of America; reconnecting our belief in personal progress and our personal potential to policies and systems that enable and ensure collective progress; and ensuring that those systems follow through on their intent to ensure safety and access to justice and opportunity for everyone.
This fundamental belief in our goodness and potential — the certainty we have about the possibility of our families and our hope for better futures for them — must be translated to our belief in each other, our community, and our country. We must be more ambitious right now about our path forward. After all — this is our story.
The collapse of trust in each other and in our institutions began with our loss of faith in politicians and government. That loss was their fault, not ours. But that lost faith has now become an intentional mechanism for the powerful to retain power. The assumption of corruption and incompetence feeds actual corruption and incompetence. And while our ineffective government feels remote and irrelevant to our daily lives, this disconnection fuels income inequality, fuels jobs losses, fuels tax policy that punishes the poor and weakens communities, economic policy and business regulation that restricts invention and innovation, and restricts mobility and opportunity. When we disengage, we allow our government to pursue corporate and private goals, rather than our collective liberty and success. The invisible forces that make our lives feel stagnant and painful are not the result of immoral neighbors or some other group undermining our way of life. They are the result of our leaders failing us, enabled by our disengagement from civic life.
These things were stolen from us, and we’ve allowed the theft to persist because we no longer recognize that it matters. Our leaders are to blame, but by disengaging, we are complicit in this system that we are desperate to change. We must reclaim our faith by engaging actively on what matters most to us and clawing our path back to agency and ambition, to a sense of what’s possible, and to a government we trust and that empowers our highest ideals.
Driven by our angry, ugly, gameshow politics, our entire culture has been consumed by division, partisanship, and difference. Rather than public service — and the soaring ambition and ideas of a country of opportunity bound together by shared purpose — the first associations of most Americans with politics are cynicism and disaffection. Working in service of our communities should be joyous and earnest — it should be the great work of our lives — and participating in civic life should be equally inspiring. Instead, politics is seen as sordid and poisonous, as antithetical to progress, and as representing our worst ambitions. The word “politician” is nearly synonymous with corruption, dishonesty, and double-speak, and our cynicism is leading us to give up on the process entirely.
Modern life — especially urban modern life — is lonely. Our families are getting smaller and our extended families more dispersed. Our parishes are shrinking while we desperately seek connections to each other. We consume more content via more networks but have fewer and fewer connections and conversations with our neighbors. As more and more of the stories we see and read fall into some version of this us-versus-them narrative, it makes our sense of isolation worse, and our instincts to protect ourselves from anyone who isn’t “us” go into overdrive. And as we are increasingly estranged from each other, we have lost touch with the value and power of community.
At the same time, our politics have become more corrupt and more self-serving. We weren’t supposed to have a “political class” — we are supposed to be self-governing. But the distance between governing and governed and the disconnect between what we’re told and what we feel have become chasms. Politicians talk about progress we don’t feel, make promises we know they can’t deliver, and rail against enemies that feel invented. And our anxiety about the future and uncertainty about our fitness for what’s coming don’t find reassurance or support — instead, they are greeted with empty gestures, macroeconomic theory, and 39-point plans. We’re left alone, unrepresented and anxious to self-medicate in isolation. Instead of connecting to our shared progress and liberty, the politics of “us versus them” are everywhere: right versus left, liberal versus conservative, urban versus rural, black versus white, America versus the world. But villainy isn’t a necessary or natural reaction to neighbors we disagree with.
These divisions don’t feel natural: they feel imposed because they are. They are lies. They are tools deployed by the callous and powerful to divide and control. They intentionally distill complex socioeconomic groups of individuals down to simple, one-dimensional caricatures, making them easy to hate. These false, imposed divisions take advantage of our need for understanding and the difficulty we all have looking beyond our own experience, in order to protect politicians’ personal power and ensure that we don’t recognize their failure — or refusal — to lead.
The myth of self-reliance — we’ve created entire systems predicated on the idea that we are intrinsically self-reliant, and that the results of our lives (e.g., success, wealth, fame; or poverty, drug addiction, etc.) are the product of our capacity and effort alone. However, our day-to-day lives and every experience humanity has ever had for millions of years tells us we are not only dependent on our communities but also that we are healthier and happier when we focus not just on maximizing our own wealth but sharing and fulfilling our role in a larger community.
The zero-sum society — This myth teaches us to assume that someone else’s gain is our loss: that competition is a winner-take-all battle to the death in business, in politics, and even in personal relationships. This thinking is at the core of what drives the radicalization of American politics (along with a host of systemic corruptions) — it drives our increasingly monopolistic economy — it drives the inequality of wealth and justice that separates us further everyday. Competition is good and healthy — it drives evolution and progress. But the goal of competition should be progress, not the annihilation of our enemies. We should be focused on our needs and our families and our country, but our needs, the health of our families, and the vibrancy of our country is not the aggregate of 318M zero-sum victories. Nowhere in nature is the annihilation of enemies a productive strategy, and our culture of winner-take-all competition is slowly destroying our ability to exist as a global community. And our fear of not having enough should not be what drives our relationships or our politics.
The best path forward is not to screw some other group of people somewhere else whether they are across the state or across an ocean, but to engage in a serious and difficult conversation about needs, capacities, and ambition. If monopoly is the end of innovation then limited competition is the beginning of shared progress. If it’s cheaper to create something somewhere else and creates opportunity in new places, then we should allow it to happen while we tackle bigger problems — we should be that ambitious for ourselves. We should stop saying “I want something better for my sons and daughters” and demand something better for ourselves and each other now. If growth must be uneven, it is in our interest to ensure we all share in that growth so that we aren’t all dragged down by the suffering of any of us and that means higher wages and broader profit sharing. If industries are shifting faster than our education system can prepare us for, we need to embrace new types of learning and value different types of experience. We must abandon the idea that disruption is a goal in and of itself — it may be short-term profitable, but this sense of turning industries upside down with no longer-term view than turning one dollar into two (or ten), with no larger goal or view of the future we’re creating is like driving a wrecking ball blindfolded. And the costs of disruption are born predominantly by people who have no say and don’t benefit from the disruption leaving us feeling used and ignored by an investor class that doesn’t care about us. We have to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the disruptions we create and possibly some of the costs as well. There will always be a gradient of wealth and success just as there will always be a gradient in any community of skill and ambition. But we should not let ourselves believe that some must suffer as a result or that we can survive destroying any of us.
STRENGTH IN DIFFERENCE
No group is as one-dimensional as any of us are told, and we all balk at the presumption of being categorized and boxed in by others. We can rise above the basement expectations that have been set for us by cynical leaders who’ve lost sight of where and why they started. We can shake free of the limits imposed on us by leaders who think too little of themselves to think enough of us to expect the generous kindness we exhibit in our daily lives to translate to politics and government. We need to see each other and believe in what we see. Each of us is both capable and flawed, ambitious and lazy, selfish and generous — we are complex individuals — complete and infinite. But as groups we are told we are either wealthy or poor, right or left, inside or outside.
Homogeneous groups are fragile — lack of diversity makes all communities weaker. And the people who are looking to gain or maintain power know this. In reality, almost no one (in fact, only one) of us is the unseen average at the center of the stereotype. We need vibrant, diverse communities (ideological, racial, class, and otherwise) to ensure we can handle shocks, to ensure we have the skills to handle what’s coming, to challenge and strengthen or ideas, and to ensure we understand the whole world — not just the world immediately around us or the people who look like us.
We are all outsiders in one way or another — each of us is more complex and more defiantly individual than any of the groups we belong to, much less the stereotypes we are reduced to. We are quick to brush off stereotypes of ourselves or people we know personally, yet we are quick to assume them about people we don’t know. We struggle to translate the tolerance and understanding we feel for the people we know directly to a broader sense of openness about those we don’t. Because it is easier to hate at a distance and we live in big world where we’re connected to more people at greater distances, so we must actively work to ensure our first response to new or different communities is to assume the best, akin to folks we know, not the worst about those we don’t.
So the question is: which story are we going to believe about ourselves and our country?
Will we believe the one that’s been constructed for us, that we are surrounded by the evil, the immoral, and the ignorant trying to destroy our lives and cultures? That people who disagree with us are not only wrong and stupid but also worthless? That our otherness dooms us to certain beliefs and expectations of each other and that we should never trust in the goodness of those around us?
Or will we recognize that each of those closest to us are in fact the others that people are demonizing, the exceptions that we have been comfortable with our whole lives because they are not the ethereal one-dimensional bogeymen that politicians blame for their own inability to lead?
We must remember: we are the source of the progress. We are the infinite possibility of 318M citizens bound together on a shared path. Too often, we no longer recognize that sharedness. And while that path remains imperfect, and gaps in opportunity and potential persist despite our best hopes and ideas, we are not done with the great work of perfecting our union: work that can only be done together.
Three steps forward
If we are to fix our broken democracy, we must begin with three big changes.
1. EMBRACE COLLECTIVE SUCCESS
“Personal responsibility” has been hijacked as a justification for culling social programs and undermining our ability to support those who need it. It is predicated on another version of the same self-reliance lie — the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story. We all know people who’ve “made it” back from hard times or who have “risen above their station”.
But none of the heroes in those stories did it on their own — they are all indebted to people and institutions that helped, supported, encouraged, and elevated them. Their work is no less heroic because they had help, but our failing to recognize that help is needed releases us from the obligation of providing it. It is our work, this helping. We do it for our families, for our friends every day. We help. We offer extra hands and second chances. But if you have no boots and nowhere to stand, how likely are you to be able to do that? If you don’t have a family or friends to hold your back into the wind, what then? We all need help, but we don’t all get it from the same places. We should leave no one behind — we’re too good and too kind for that. Accepting personal responsibility means taking care of our communities, not looking out for no one but ourselves. It means participating in not just our own personal lives but also showing up for the people around us.
If instead we assumed that we in fact need others to succeed for us to succeed and that we each have not just a stake in but a responsibility for the success of others, what could we change? If we believed in collective success and limited competition, embraced the truth that interdependency can enable greater progress than the myth of self-reliance, and demanded that our politics and our government elevate everyone, how could we reclaim all our policies? Trade rules? Tax policy? Corporate regulation? Our legal system? Voting access? Campaign finance? Poverty? Violence?
All of these aspects of civic life could and must be remade to reflect the world in which we live — not the lie we’ve been ingesting and regurgitating for the last hundred years.
2. REENGAGE IN CIVIC LIFE
How we stand up for ourselves and for each other — that is, how we solve problems at a microscale — should inform macroscale solutions and policies. That does not mean that scale comes from replication of smaller efforts, but from learning and not losing track of the beliefs that animate what actually creates progress. All politics is personal — local was always a placeholder, the best approximation of what was most important to us. We must each engage on the things that matter most to us, and our leaders must listen and respond to us in ways that suggest they know and care about us personally. Government is one of the tools we use to create the life we want for ourselves and our country, and for our leaders to have any chance of living up to what we need from them, we must believe in its value and potential. It also means that we have to be less passive in the process, and our politicians need to make participation easier for everyone and for more of the process than just voting for them.
3. RECLAIM THE PROCESS
Traditional institutions are necessary to grasp the levers of power and to execute our ideas whether we like it or not. We must find ways to influence, to guide, to push these institutions back onto the paths where they serve us and our needs over their own power and the narrow-minded interests that dominate American political life. And like it or not, the reorganization of these institutions is going to require us to work inside these systems in addition to disrupting and challenging them from the outside. But when we go inside, we often mistakenly embrace the culture and values of these places. Co-opting these institutions requires that we work in them, change them, help them develop our values so that they become our tools, engines for our progress rather than subjugation. The incentives in the process must be realigned to drive progress and participation for everyone and from everyone. Progress and governing are the purpose of politics, not power. We must demand, and our leaders must embrace, progress over power.
We must move forward on a foundation of togetherness. The American story is not “us versus them” in some protest polemic; that just reinforces our desire to see someone pay for what’s not working. It’s about being for progress for everyone everywhere.
It’s about a commitment to equality that means an equal say in the values and path of our country for all citizens. A healthy government is equally accountable to everyone it represents, not just those who can afford access. It means proactively looking for needs and issues that can’t lobby us but are no less important. Justice must exist for everyone in our society in practice, not just in theory or our we all suffer the injustice of a sense that the rule of law is arbitrary. It’s about extending this commitment to justice and equality to our dealings with other countries through trade and diplomacy — making trade deals on the backs of the poor in other countries to make our lives easier and cheaper is not progress, it is the offshoring of worker exploitation. And it means that each of us engage in our communities — local, faith, issue, online, offline, wherever on whatever — in a way that demonstrates our awareness and commitment to each other.
We don’t all have to become activists, but we do all need to embrace our role, big or small, in the world around us. Participation is not optional. We are either complicit in the continued erosion of faith or participating in the rebuilding of it — there is no opting out. We do believe in each other, but we’ve been told too many times that we don’t. We’ve allowed entertainment to masquerade as journalism to the point that not only can we not tell the difference, but also aren’t interested in what experts say. Corruption and self-centeredness are so deeply assumed in those who’ve succeeded because they demonstrate (despite what they sometimes say) so little desire for others to succeed that we aren’t interested in their genius or experience. We bandy about words like “establishment” and “elite” as more bogeymen to demonize, and in the process we’ve accidentally denigrated expertise to the point of having to learn everything from scratch and reinvent every wheel. We shouldn’t be pulling down the successful and the educated. But they, just like everyone else, must embrace their connection to those around them. Corruption and self-centeredness are rooted in entitlement — the mistaken belief that position, that success is theirs alone and entitles them to think only of themselves while we follow blindly to be taken advantage of as some faceless human input to their wealth machine. Like all the other zero-sum lies, the idea that it’s either-or is something we must let go of. It’s not established experience or youthful energy. It’s not global trade or American jobs. It’s not free speech or campaign finance equality. We can and we must do both.
If we choose to reengage with our original story, the one we started with about overcoming tyranny together, about creating a community that reflects our desire to embrace equality and opportunity for everyone — we can reclaim, reenergize, and rebuild a politics and government that serves us. We know we are capable of more, and we can remake our systems to prove it, to ensure it, and to elevate everyone.
As long as we allow winning, rather than progress, to define politics and power, we will continue to not only feel lost but be lost. We must demand and drive an unrelenting cultural shift in how we define and what we expect from politics, politicians, and government.
We live in a two-party system where neither party effectively represents most Americans. But they remain the primary gatekeepers of certain types of political power, so we need to run in their primaries. The upshot is: if we have the conversations we need to, and engage in civic life the way we have to, we are going to win all the primaries. We can drive a serious civic movement of people who love their country but no longer trust their government because it doesn’t work for them. And we must support a bold new vision for that broken government: it can be changed, and so can the broken systems that keep it broken.
We must simply begin together — begin with joy and vigor and act and engage as if this is in fact the most important work we can do. We can live this better story about ourselves and become earnest active citizens together in spite of a system that inspires little more than cynicism. Do work in our communities. Be active. Demand more from our leaders. Small, essential, everyday acts of bravery to push back against the tide of cynicism. We are all part of this story. It is fundamentally about us, our families, and what we want from our lives, for our children, for our neighborhood — and how our citizenship can help us live that life. We can build our own community, support our own candidates, elect better leaders who are more connected to our priorities, promote policies that reflect what we believe, and implement programs that enable justice, equality, and opportunity for everyone. We can lead — in both small ways and big ones — while others discuss. It is time for each of us to take small, essential steps into the great work of building our more perfect union.
This introduction is just the barest beginning. The voices and perspectives will be how we reshape, reclaim, and ultimately breathe new life into our politics together. So much more to come.
Also published on Medium.