November 17, 2018

Speechless in America

Here we are at the climax of a crazy, nasty and historic election year — when we finally announce our new president — and here I am at my laptop, with very little to say. Seriously, what can I say that you haven’t already heard or that you won’t hear somewhere else? That Trump is an idiot and a bigot? That Hillary is corrupt and dishonest?

In a way, it’s perfectly appropriate that this column is going to press before I find out the official winner. It reinforces why I have so little to say. So, stuck in this limbo of speechlessness, I thought I would share some of the ideas I considered for a post-election column, and you can decide on their relevance.

My first thought was something on “The year of political decadence.” The darkest clichés of politics — terrible candidates, ad hominem attacks, absence of substance, a ratings-mad media, widespread cynicism, etc. — seemed to crescendo this year into a perfect storm of disgust. With the additional headwind of Wikileaks, which revealed the “secret” correspondence of the Washington elite, we saw a political establishment get naked in front of us and confirm the cronyism and ugliness we always suspected.

I’m not trying to draw any equivalencies here between the candidates. I don’t have to. I’m just saying that, for me, the net effect of this dirty election season was a need to take a shower and go into political detox. 

This sad state of affairs made me consider another column, “Should I be happy?” Faced with the evil of two lessers, should I join the pro-Hillary and anti-Trump camps and rejoice in her expected victory? For those traumatized by the possibility of a President Trump, I understand the intense desire to dodge the Trumpian bullet. But that’s a far cry from claiming that a President Clinton — the ultimate insider mistrusted by a majority of the country and whose future may well be crippled by endless investigations — would be cause for popping the champagne. It wouldn’t.

Any political ecosystem that gives us a choice between a chauvinist pig and an unscrupulous insider is one we should bemoan, not honor. I saw this anonymous quote recently that gave me the chills: “Here's the problem with voting for the lesser of two evils: How can you be sure you're not actually voting for the better of two liars?”

Which led me to a third idea for a post-election column, “Make our communities great again.” If we are so turned off by a political establishment that keeps disappointing us, should we not look for areas where we do have the power to make a difference? It’s a quote from one of my favorite conservative writers, Yuval Levin, that got me thinking in that direction:

“The premise of conservatism has always been that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state — the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy — and that creating, sustaining and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government.”

What intrigued me is this notion that “what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state.” Right now, after 18 months of yuckiness emanating from the state, I could use a little time-out from the people who will run that state. So, instead of talking to my kids about what our next president will or will not do, I think I will talk to them about what they can do in their own communities to make our country better.

I will remind them of one of my favorite statements ever from a politician, one I don’t recall hearing recently: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Those words from President John F. Kennedy in 1961 were not the words of a pandering politician desperate for our vote. They were the words of a courageous leader honest enough to tell us the truth.

The bipartisan truth in recent years is that our political leaders have let us down. It’s bad enough that they have accentuated our divisions and made many of us lose faith in government. Do they really deserve so much of our attention? Let’s stop allowing ruthless politicians who are beholden to big money and special interests to contaminate our conversations and even our relationships. 

Instead, we can turn more of our attention to the unsung heroes in our communities who instinctively put other people first. They could be volunteers at a soup kitchen or at a rape trauma center. They could be activists organizing dialogues that bring people of different faiths together. These heroes don’t live in Washington and they don’t make the evening news. In my book, though, they are the ones who make America great. 

Regardless of who wins, that’s pretty much all I have to say for this week.