ON THE AGENDA | MARCH 23RD, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

Wanted: A Vision that Unites and Engages America

The nation sorely needs leadership with a vision that binds us together, based on the values, of an engaged public.

The presidential primaries have a way of putting the extremes at the center. As the candidates mobilize the small number of partisan donors and activists who determine their fate, the political discourse polarizes even more than usual and leaves behind what little common ground and pragmatism remain in our national politics.

This is, in part, the natural outcome of the problematic design of our electoral system. It is also symptomatic of many troubling trends that are dividing the nation and undermining our ability to solve problems. These include:

  1. The growing gap between leaders and the public: Public trust in government and many other societal institutions remain near historic lows.
  2. Increasing partisan polarization in our national politics: Moderates of either party in Congress have disappeared, partisan rhetoric has hardened, and populist movements on the left and right are rising.
  3. Growing inequality and the hollowing out of the economic middle: Our post-industrial economy is splitting into a small sector of high-wage knowledge occupations and a large one of low-wage and insecure service jobs, as the middle class disappears and inequality deepens.
  4. The fracture of the news media: This makes it all too easy to reinforce our own views and avoid hearing from those who disagree.
  5. The stubborn cleavages of racial discrimination, discord and violence: Racism, the most ancient of American failures, continues to challenge each generation.

Not every one of these points of tension is necessarily all bad. If thereís too little trust between people and government now, there were periods when trust was too easily given. If our national politics have become mindlessly polarized, the political consensus of earlier periods often papered over too many problems and injustices. If the media has fractured, that has created space for new, creative forms of information, news and engagement that show real democratic promise.

Together, however, these trends create a huge obstacle to fair and effective governance. Some disagreement and disruption is needed to open up the potential for better possibilities to take shape. However, we also need a unifying vision and program based on a coherent public judgment about how America should address its great challenges in order to make agreement possible again and sustain progress over time.

While no one knows how this election will turn out, we can make one prediction. No matter who our next president is, he or she will face a deeply divided nation, one in which millions of people fear the future, feel they will have no voice in that future, and doubt the good will of not only most politicians but many of their fellow citizens as well.

Fortunately, the picture is not all bleak. As Iíve written elsewhere, seeds of progress are being planted in cities and towns across America, where people are coming together to address the issues facing their communities. There, a different narrative is taking shape than that of national political dysfunction.

Bottom-up progress offers hope, but ultimately a response is needed from the national level of politics and problem solving as well. At the moment itís hard to see where that will come from. Possibly, weíll get some hints once the primaries are over and the candidates are tasked with winning a broader swath of voters. Possibly, it will come from altogether non-political sources. However it emerges, the nation sorely needs leadership with a coherent and integrative vision that binds us together rather than splits us further apart, based on the values, aspirations and deliberations of an engaged public.


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