Most of us, including many who voted for Trump in 2016, know, in our hearts, that impeaching or defeating Trump will not be enough to heal the divisions in our nation. We know that Trump’s election was a symptom of deep underlying problems and we know that we won’t get out of this crisis until we have found a way to address these problems. My concern, my fear, is that we do not yet have a good enough understanding of the underlying causes that produced Trump, and, as a result we do not have an adequate plan for addressing them. I live in a small city in northern California where a diverse group of volunteer citizens of all political stripes have been working for the past ten years to overcome divisions, give everyone a voice and role, and improve the way we work together. We have been dealing in our city with the same issues that have divided our nation and now threaten our democracy. As a volunteer neighborhood leader working in that effort, it is clear to me that our national political and opinion leaders, as well as our Presidential candidates, do not fully understand the perspective from the neighborhood level in our city and are not speaking directly to the key problems that we feel have produced our political crisis. In the belief that we all need to work together to find the best way to address this crisis, I will try to articulate the perspective from the neighborhood level in a small city far from DC to add to this vital national conversation.
What are the main problems that we need to address to get out of this crisis? The answer seems obvious to us: our main problems are the deep divisions, the breakdown in trust, and the inability to work together to meet our challenges. Maybe we hold this view since we can still see each other as neighbors. We can imagine that, despite our differences, we do have a lot in common with each other and can find a way to work together. We can see that meeting the challenges we face in housing, homelessness, and climate change will depend on engaging citizens and working together with our government to meet these challenges. We can also see that without trust in each other and the ability to work together, our politics here in our city and at all levels of government will remain gridlocked and we will not be able to meet our challenges.
Our main problem is not health care, not climate change, not growing inequality, and not jobs. These are all crucial challenges that most of us know we must address, but, here at the neighborhood level, we can see that our ability to address these, and all of our issues, depends, first of all, on rebuilding the both trust and the institutions that we need to find common ground and work together. I know this is a position that will frustrate many, but I will ask you please to stay with me a bit longer. I am not arguing that we cannot address the challenges that threaten us. We must. But, if we can understand that our main problems are mistrust and our inability to work together, it would change the way we address these issues. And, if I am right, taking this approach might actually be the only way to effectively address them.
Building a movement now to fight for something like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, given our current divisions and mistrust, can only sound to large sections of our nation and to many of our citizens, like another scheme for power led by mistrusted political elites. This mistrust comes partly from the fact that our political and intellectual elites have been developing policies in Washington that have, consciously or not, benefited them and left many parts of the nation and most of its citizens behind. Too many of us are not ready for new policies and initiatives that we suspect will create more of the same inequality. We are looking for, and don’t know how to get, a new kind of politics that we feel includes and represents us.
That is the danger of Trump’s appeal: he promises to represent those left out, labels our current democracy as nothing but a cover for rule by elites, and offers an authoritarian politics to replace it. The best, and, given our level of distrust, maybe the only way to get past this crisis is for us to work together to demonstrate that is still possible to build a different kind of politics that better reflects our deepest democratic values, a politics that gives everyone a voice, helps us find common ground, and unites us to meet the pressing challenges we face.
Currently, none of the presidential candidates seem prepared to take this approach –not the candidates who call for a return to normalcy, not those who focus on bold new policy initiatives, not those who call for building a movement to challenge the influence of the wealthy and corporations –none of them are offering a plan that focuses on the work to heal our divisions and our ability to work together. They all seem to share the same old focus of gaining control of government and using it to enact policies that they believe will best serve the people. But, too many of us now believe that this approach has not included everyone and has not served us all of us. It has led, instead, to the deep crisis in trust that we are now in. We need to do better.
Ten years ago, we decided to make the issues of mistrust and division the focus for the work in our city. We have learned a lot from this work and are now focused on three tasks. First, we are working to build and empower neighborhood and community organizations throughout our city. These are the organizations we need to get us more engaged and to give us the chance to get to know each other and learn how to work together. Second, we are developing a new process for making key decisions in our city that will provide us all with a common and trusted source of information, give everyone a voice in these decisions, and create the opportunity to learn from each other across the city and find common ground. Third, we are working to transform our government so that instead of doing things for us, it works to support and partner with neighborhood and community organizations to do the work of the city.
What would it look like to make the work of overcoming our divisions and rebuilding trust the focus of our national politics? If we apply the same approach we have taken in our city to the national level, here are eight ideas that we, and all of our presidential candidates, might be discussing as a plan for healing our nation.
First, we would call on everyone to put aside their party affiliations and help to launch a broad non-partisan “Common Ground” effort to reaffirm the democratic vision and democratic values of our nation, to reaffirm our commitment to value and respect all of our diverse and uniquely valuable citizens and their communities and to build a democracy that returns citizens to the center of our politics. We would, together, acknowledge the deep divisions and lack of trust that exists among our communities. We would acknowledge the just anger and resentment of many of our communities that feel voiceless and neglected. We would acknowledge the pain caused by all the forms of discrimination that have excluded too many of us from full participation in our nation’s life. To begin the work to break down barriers among our communities and to engage all of us in the process of healing, we will call on all of our nation’s faith-based organizations, schools, community organizations and governments to join in our “Common Ground” initiative and reach out and get to know each other and to build bridges of understanding among all of our diverse communities. We will all take the time to find ways to visit and talk face-to-face with those we don’t know, especially those who are different from us.
Second, to ensure the inclusions and the safety of all communities, we will join together to oppose all those who try to divide us and we will work together to overcome all forms of discrimination that exclude any of us from full participation in our national life. We will ensure that the full resources of the Federal, State, and local Governments will focus on protecting and ensuring that all of our diverse citizens and communities feel safe and secure in our nation.
Third, we will protect the basic right of each citizen to vote and have an equal voice in the direction of our nation, we will enact legislation and constitutional amendments if necessary, to limit the unfair influence of money in our politics, eliminate gerrymandering designed to give unfair advantage to a party, and end all voter suppression.
Fourth, we will launch a national effort to strengthen and empower local neighborhood and community organizations and provide them with the support and resources that they deserve as the foundation of our democracy. These local community and neighborhood organizations will give every citizen the opportunity to be a member of an organization that has the power and resources to take responsibility for where they live, an organization where we can get to know each other and practice and learn the democratic skills that are only true safeguard for a democracy.
Fifth, we would all acknowledge the deep mistrust in our governments and public institutions that have not always worked in everyone’s interest and we would acknowledge that our political parties have too often promoted division and mistrust among us to gain power for themselves. We will commit to working to together to transform our governments and our parties so that they can regain our trust and work to support and partner with citizens and their local organization in the work of the nation.
Sixth, we will begin a major “No Community Left Behind” to initiative, a Marshall plan for America, to provide resources and assistance to all of our stressed communities, both urban and rural, to help them to develop and implement community-based plans to strengthen and heal their communities. We will do whatever it takes to help all of our communities still suffering the consequences of racism and discrimination and all of our communities devasted by the effects of globalization. We understand the value of each community to all of us and we will demonstrate our commitment to our democratic values by our actions to leave no community behind.
Seventh, to find a way to provide health care for all and to meet the challenge of climate change, we will begin a major, four-year effort to create a national consensus on, and begin the implementation of, plans to address these pressing challenges. While we work to find common ground on this work so that we can engage us all to meet these challenges, we will pass legislation to temporarily extend the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid to immediately provide health care for all and we will pass legislation to adopt a temporary plan to lower emissions of carbon dioxide to ensure that we can meet future goals required to protect our planet once we have our fully developed plan. To develop the consensus and long-term plan for a national effort to address these issues, we will develop a new process for reaching consensus that places citizens at the center and allows policies to develop from communities not from Washington. We will organize informed face-to-face discussions throughout our nation in all of our neighborhoods, faith-based institutions, schools, neighborhood, and community organizations to tap into the wisdom and experience of all of our citizens for ideas on how to address these key issues. The plans we develop will give all of us a role in addressing these crucial challenges. We will overcome the fact that we don’t currently share a trusted source of information and shared facts by convening panels of citizens to work with experts to provide us with the unbiased information and the options that we all will need to have informed discussions on health care and climate change. We will provide opportunities for citizens from all of our communities come together to exchange ideas and find the common ground we need to succeed, culminating in a national citizens congress that will be tasked with making recommendations to congress for legislation. Working together on this major initiative to address these pressing challenges will give us the opportunity to get to know and learn from each other and restore our ability to work together to meet all other challenges.
And, eighth, we will call on all of our educational institutions from elementary to college and university to restore civic education to the center of all of our schools to reflect our central democratic values. We need to prepare our youth to become the citizens we need and to engage all of our youth in the work to restore our democracy and address our challenges.
A plan like this would give us nothing less than a chance to build a democracy for the 21st Century. It would require a very significant commitment of resources, time, and effort on the part of all of us. But it is exactly this kind of effort that would give us the opportunity to get to know each other, rebuild trust, and renew the common vision of a shared democratic community that we desperately need. The commitment of our time and resources on major action to address the needs of our communities left behind would demonstrate that we really are committed to a democratic community that leaves no one behind. And our work to find common ground and address our health care and climate change challenges would demonstrate the power and potential of our democracy. As we work on these initiatives, we would learn that democracy is not a spectator sport –It both requires and rewards participation. And we will discover again that life in a democratic community might just be better than life in the anxious and divided world that we now inhabit. If we seize this opportunity, we can turn away from division and build, instead, one of the world’s first truly diverse and inclusive democracies. Given the state of the world, the crisis in our democracies, and the rise of authoritarianism, this would be the best gift we could give to the world.