I return home today after spending two weeks in Washington working with The Washington Center and its Inauguration ’17 academic seminar.
Trying to capture a series of academic presentations and visits to various organizations, political and non-political, and linking them to larger ideas is always challenging; the editor in me especially appreciates the task of cutting my work into a succinct and coherent message.
Let’s begin with the obvious: America is no more unified on Jan. 21, 2017, than it was on Nov. 9, 2016. I don’t write those words with any sort of happiness; I also don’t write them trying to sound naive and assuming our nation ever truly was unified.
During his time in office, President Trump might be able to heal at least some of the national wounds from the bruising 2016 presidential election. But in fairness to him, the fissures that first appeared after the 2000 presidential election grew into ever deeper cracks over the next 16 years. Less strident rhetoric — at least that’s what his critics would call it — from the president would be a positive step in healing the nation.
But rhetoric must meet action. And the action must not come just from the 45th President of the United States. It has to come from all of us who care about our democracy. We need to hold a legitimate, calm and reasoned national conversation with people who agree and disagree about the values that will guide us moving forward.
Vexing issues such as immigration, race, the use of our military and more must be addressed not through the lens of “I am right so shut up and agree with me” but rather through a spirit of understanding and listening. Doing so will not guarantee results, but at minimum it will allow for those on the left and the right to grasp what the other side stands for.
Here again, I’m not trying to be naive. There are plenty of people who will never see the other side as anything more than idiots who can’t see past their own blind spots and biases. For these people, self-righteous arrogance will be their safety blanket.
We also must begin trusting our institutions again. Our media, our universities, our houses of worship, our halls of power must be seen as respectable, knowledgeable, honorable; just as we say “thank you” to the military man or woman whose path we cross, we must hold high the institutions that inform us, teach us, bless us and support us.
I’m not calling for blind devotion; these institutions must be held accountable for what they do. But the ugly language that screams that these places of power have been corrupted beyond repair and must be ignored is ridiculous.
Oh, yes, our country has work to do. Hard work. Millions of people will step forward in some way and try to address what is wrong and strengthen what is right. Yet, consider on this January day how little we agree on what is right and what is wrong. Other people will retreat; they will for their own reasons remain in the shadows, uncomfortable or unwilling to be part of this crucial national dialogue.
Support the people who get involved, even if you don’t agree with what they are saying; empathize with those people who remain on the sidelines.
And let’s get to work.