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The Path to a Better Future

There are days when I just cannot face the news.

I do not want to read about the latest testimony in the impeachment hearings, the President’s tweets, or a new survey of voters in Iowa.

I do not want to know about a glacier disappearing in Iceland, a mass of plastic floating in the ocean, or invasive species threatening our wetlands.

I just want to come home from the day’s work, listen to some music, find a movie on Netflix, have a glass of wine, and be warm, comfortable, oblivious.

The problem is not simply that the news is often bad. There has always been bad news and always will be.

The problem is context. I no longer understand the social and political world in which news happens; as a result, I have trouble seeing how I might do something about the events taking place.

This is partly due to the polarization of our political parties. But it is also due to something else I cannot quite figure out.

We used to have two political parties that stood for distinct but coherent ideas about governance.

The Republican party stood for stability. It pushed for fiscal responsibility, local autonomy, incremental reform, and traditional moral values.

The Democratic party stood for individual freedom and equality. It emphasized the rights of the oppressed, help for the disadvantaged, and improved public access to social goods like education, culture, and health care.

Today, however, neither party seems to stand for a coherent set of principles or policies. Instead, they are defined by attitudes

We have a Republican Party which seems to valorize strength over honesty, to be systematically destabilizing government institutions, and to believe that a rapidly increasing federal deficit is sound economic policy.

We have a Democratic Party which seems to believe that advancement of society may be procured through the abolishment of meritocracy and is suspicious of every source of traditional norms, whether that be church, family, or long-standing customs.

Perhaps the strangest feature of American politics today is that neither party sees itself as the other party sees it.

This is what happens when attitudes replace principles as the unifying feature of political identity.

Insofar as there is a single attitude most Republicans hold in common, it seems to be something like this: the world is getting worse and it is somebody else’s fault.

Democrats seem to have a quite different attitude in common: only marginalized voices have legitimacy.

Both attitudes separate the world into us versus them.

Neither attitude is coherent. Simply stated and standing on their own, they are manifestly indefensible. But attitudes are not principles. They have their own logic, which is to say no logic at all.

Principles must be defended, so there is an expectation that they be consistent with one another and with the policies and behaviors of those who hold them. But attitudes are often unacknowledged, implicitly expressed rather than consciously adopted.

Nevertheless, commitment to attitudes often runs deeper than commitment to principles. Challenge my principles and you challenge an idea I hold; challenge my attitudes and you challenge me.

It is tempting to think that pointing out the errors and inconsistencies of those on the other side is enough, that it can help turn the political tide of endless frustration. But that is a trap. Blaming individuals and then generalizing from that blame is not a path to improving society. It is itself the biggest problem.

We do not need more voices telling us who to blame. What we need is trust.

There is plenty of empirical evidence that organizations in which members trust one another are happier, more productive, and less susceptible to corruption. The same is true of communities.

School districts measuring high in relational trust show improvements in educational outcomes year after year. Schools districts that measure low in relational trust show steady decline. And that is regardless of spending, teacher-student ratio, or curriculum.

Communities that score high in social capital (a measure of generalized trust among citizens) have better outcomes for children’s well-being, better schools, less fraud, and lower crime rates.

What this suggests is that even imperfect policies, when pursued in a spirit of trust and collaboration, eventually yield positive results. By contrast, the advocacy of sound policies turns counterproductive when accompanied by demonizing or ridicule of those who disagree.

Both political parties are motivated by deep-seated distrust and suspicion. These emotions are eroding our confidence and willingness to work together to solve problems.

I find the news most frustrating when I can see no path forward. And it is true that I can do little to change the course of national politics.

But I still have power over my own life. I can choose to love my neighbor. I can choose to believe in humanity. I can choose the true over the false, hope over cynicism, courage over fear. I can live as an example of the kind of politics I would like to see.

That is the path to a better future.

December 2, 2019

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