I love my country.
A simple statement. Overused across the board, devoid of meaning in most contexts and yet, loaded to the hilt right now. At this point in time, before the 2012 Presidential Election, my love of country, our love of country, calls upon us to unite despite the calls all around us to divide and descend into a political black hole.
It is an amazing time to be an American. From the standpoint of political infrastructure we are staring at the abyss, right now. We are pushing on the walls and constraints of political discourse in ways that will resolve either in an incredible new experiment in democracy or the destruction of hegemony, devolution into disarray and a long walk through barren lands to hopefully return to a country slightly resembling the America our parents and grandparents built. Sound overly dramatic? Stay with me.
I watched during 2011 as revolutionaries took over control of parts of Congress and the minds of one of our parties. I literally watched it unfold in my home state of Wisconsin which was undergoing a change that no political pundit would have predicted. In the land that literally gave birth to AFSCME, public sector unions were on the road to being abolished, normally a “third rail” in Wisconsin politics. In that context, national political leaders decided to start testing other “third rails”. The “debate” over the debt ceiling in 2011 was a test of what was possible in terms of touching lightening and living. And it happened. The GOP threatened, at the behest of Tea Party leaders, to not authorize raising the debt ceiling as Republican and Democratic Administrations had done for decades. For this faction, it was simple political calculus. To “win”, they must capture the attention of the world. Much as fringe elements worldwide do when they hijack planes, invade olympics or pull our citizens into dark places in Tehran, this fringe held our economy hostage. Pointed a gun at our head. Pulled the trigger and prayed, to test our resolve.
The Democratic Party utterly failed to respond. In Wisconsin, in Washington DC, across the country. Due to decades of living with the existence of “third rails”, the Democrats simply lost their sharpness in the debate. The Democratic Party did not have the organization, willpower or resolve to take on the tough issue directly. By failing to take the threat seriously, the Democrats failed not just the country, but the global economy. This party was just as culpable in the situation that they might as well as pulled that trigger themselves.
But that lack of sharpness in defending recessionary government spending, Healthcare Reform, or Medicare, or Social Security, out of fear, threatened a much more devastating outcome. By not having an organized citizen based backing to demonstrate support for a sane fiscal positioning, we, together, drove the country toward collapse (and really only took our finger off the trigger with sequestration now facing the country).
As I will get to, because we lacked an understanding of why I love my country, and why we all do, we are now approaching that gun again with our finger at the trigger. The fiscal cliff is no joke. At the worst possible time in the midst of this recovery, our politicians are staring down a barrel. While we discuss “legitimate rape” on one side and birth certificates on the other, the only areas of concrete and productive spending will be at complete risk. On all sides. Citizens in need will suffer, our national defense will suffer and our economy will take a self inflicted shot to the head. Unless we rise.
In the midst of all of this controversy life goes on. In America, as in all of the countries I have visited in my career, we continue to turn inward to our family. For us, it is a weekly ritual for my wife and I to go to dinner, sometimes a movie or a show, or just a drive around our great city. We did that this week again as I figure many american households did at the same time. But we didnt make it to a movie.
Because of some books each of us are reading (some at the behest of my incredible 13 year old daughter) we started talking about America. Whether we should aim to be the most powerful country in the world. Whether we should have healthcare or education or a job as a right. Whether a strong defense is the only path to peace. The outcome of each of these debates was interesting but far more interesting was the conversation over what is it that still makes us uniquely American. As a country. And if there still was the unique American, what is it that is killing her and what is it that would save her.
It was an incredibly emotional conversation. Are we really what the polls say we are? Are we split hopelessly down the middle? Do our republican friends really believe what they say? Do our Democratic friends understand their arguments? What issues bind us? What issues drive us apart? And who are pulling all those levers?
I admitted, as a lifelong political ally in some circles, to having lived out the problem. And I consider some of my closest friends as continuing to live out the challenges. I am responsible for parts of this problem. After much reflection we settled on a simple position that captures the essence of the poisonous current discourse.
Our political world is tilted toward “winning” elections and not creating and sustaining “states”.
It has been part of my career to advise politicians on how to “win” elections. I am actually pretty good at it. As are my friends. And we can understand why a faction in the political right would suggest and embrace the debt ceiling strategy, to win. Why it makes sense to highlight a misstep of words to characterize the other party as waging a war on women, to win. Why it is OK to suggest killing Medicare as we know it and at the same time tell the world publicly that your intention is to save the system, to win. Why a campaign would attack Solyndra as a waste of money while understanding deeply the need to invest in risky startups to embrace and push forward new industries, to win. We do, and argue for, these positions because, quite simply, it is how you “win” elections. My job wasn’t to govern, but to win. And that, is the crux of the problem.
But the answer isn’t far from us. The examples, as my wife and I discussed, are manyfold. Men and women who have bucked the current system, focused on building a state that works, caring for the craft, identifying and supporting truth speakers and making hard choices about a sustainable way forward and then to work ACROSS divides to unite us as a country in funding those priorities. Our table talk surrounded who could rise to meet this challenge? Marco Rubio? Chris Christie? John Huntsman? Hilarie Clinton? Barack Obama? Mitt Romney?
Our conclusion? None of them. What is required of folks to rise and succeed in the current political world is inconsistent with what is needed to change it. The political and corporate leaders we each know well, lack the ability to craft a state.
But, we decided, each of us has that ability. To rise up where we are, not look outside for some white knight to come in and save the day. That the answer was to tap into our cross-party identity to activate in our own world. To advocate for our american family inside our childrens schools. To advocate and forward those priorities where we work. To agitate within our local city councils and neighborhoods to demand the type of civics that are suitable to be called American. Not everyone has the unique set of experiences to allow them to become president, but each of us has the unique capability to take back our country from a poisonous discourse, by talking again to our neighbors, advocating for our neighbors and our own needs and ignoring the constant buzz of national politics.
So with the problems identified (“Winning” over “Statebuilding”) and a focus on the solutions needed (local leadership replacing national politics) the question remained whether there was this unique thing called America, that bound us together. There was.
Through our conversations last night we uncovered volumes of cases when America showed her true colors repeatedly. From individuals we knew that quietly supported folks who suffered unnecessarily, to examples from our own lives. In Law School my house burned down. We were a bit unsure what to do and where to turn and, to our surprise, our community came to support us. With food, clothes, offers of shelter, anonymous donations of money, support from my school, from churches, from non-profits and others. When injustice happens in America, none of us bring our political convention badges. We bring our soul. Look at the outpouring of support for Aurora, Colorado and Oak Creek, Wisconsin this year as examples. There were not Democrats and Republicans at the vigils, there were Americans.
And while I have given countless speeches about it, the most powerful example of this was, and is, 9/11. I was in the towers weeks before they came down. I have and had myriads of friends who work on that beloved island. And what I loved, in the midst of our darkest despair, is the way we came together in that week as Americans without political cover. We all flew our flags, I watched bankers help laborers walk home from the towers, I watched needy left-wing citizens follow the guidance of a caring right-wing mayor. I watched brave firefighters and construction workers, selflessly run TOWARD that collapse, in order to save even one more life while risking theirs. To understand the true unity laying dormant in America you need only remember how you felt the day those proud towers fell. Despite the centuries of political messaging heaped on top of who we were, that shot at our country instantly stripped it away, and lay bare what it means to be an American. We are united, not divided, at our core. Politics has led us in a different direction. Statesmanship can lead us out.
The Greater Fool
So, the day after a great date night, it is often hard to keep the momentum going. Great talk, do we act? Are we still tuned in? Sometimes, as my wife always says, the universe is giving you an answer, but you need to listen. When I walked into my wife’s office after coffee this morning she had DVR’ed Newsroom. We love the show, admittedly because we are left of center types and its fun to hear our thoughts in eloquent words. But the season finale was about everything we had just discussed. Everyone should watch it, so they get the conclusions below. The central point of the show is a back and forth over the idea of “The Greater Fool”. As an aside I have issues with the example myself due to its financial roots, but the wrap up lines in the show were perfect.
There have been many people with opinions about how to “fix” our country. How to take us back. Regain our beautiful history. Become what we were. I dissent. We have never lost what we were. It has simply been buried under decades of communications crap laid on top by politics.
We must embrace what we are. What we truly are. We must act on it. Locally. We must unplug from stupid national attempts to control what we think and demonstrate we understand our neighbors. We must touch what makes us all American, fight like hell for that, and work together to resolve on the details. It will be hard, impossibly difficult, unbelievably irritating and the challenge of my generation. But as a boy, I watched Team USA, skate on the ice, unknown, with no believers, defeat what we used to call the USSR. It is only the fool, the greater fool, that truly thinks we can do that now in politics. Not by finding or building a candidate. But by acting. In our lane. Running our pattern. Fulfilling our role. Never flinching in defense. And understanding what makes us all American.
And later today I came across a great debate on Facebook about Voter ID. A good one. Sid Burgess asked a simple question about Voter ID. Good conversation about it. A few partisan barbs but really what seemed to be real people talking about an issue. A vital one. The right to vote. The discourse was intelligent and civil. And the source, a great republican passionately embracing walkability in of all places, Oklahoma City, helps to prove that this world, this conflict, has hope of resolution. If this lifelong Democrat in Seattle and a self-described card carrying Republican in OKC can come to together to build a civic discourse, maybe we will succeed in building a new America.
“The Greater Fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was made by greater fools.”