It’s stating the obvious to say that our nation, politically speaking, is more divided now than it has been for many decades and that this divisiveness is at its worst in Washington.
Even something as obvious and imperative as approving the annual budget on time seems beyond Congress’ capacity, much less crafting legislation on really challenging issues like, say, immigration reform and regulating artificial intelligence.
Our country needs changes. Changes that reduce the anger and hostility that infect the political realm. Changes that restore confidence in America’s future. Changes that rebuild the trust that’s a fundamental part of any successful society: trust in our democratic system, trust in one another.
The question is, who will bring about these all-important changes? Who will give us the leadership?
The answer isn’t our national elected officials. This isn’t because they’re all caught up in the current Washington warfare. We have many public officeholders, including appointees and career civil servants, who want to put the dysfunction behind them and help solve the nation’s problems. But they’re stopped cold by the partisanship that paralyzes the Capital. And they’re stymied by the loss of confidence in the political system and the frustration that sours public opinion.
Washington has brought itself—and the nation—to a near standstill. People see this and despair spreads, often with fatal consequences. Think of the alarming number of suicides every year and the countless deaths from drug addiction and alcoholism.
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So, here’s what I think is necessary: We must go outside the existing political structure and get leaders in communities across the U.S. to start talking about and encouraging positive changes in our society. If the ability to get the nation moving again can’t come from the top down, then it has to come from the bottom up, from the local level.
A pipe dream? In fact, it’s happened before. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, monopolies, trusts and rapacious businessmen were in the process of taking over the nation’s economy and controlling the government. Then a grassroots counterforce that became known as the Progressive Movement sprang up. The movement eventually found national leaders, most famously Teddy Roosevelt. But the point is that the energy and passion behind it came from the public at large. People getting aroused and committing themselves to reform can make a difference.
I’m convinced this could happen again, because the American people themselves haven’t changed all that much. They still love their country, they still care about their communities, they still value neighborly cooperation, they still volunteer for community service, they still give to charities and they still believe that serious differences can be worked out.
Yes, there are many hotheads out there, pumping their bile into the mainstream. And yes, a lot of that anger is inflamed by biased media and self-serving politicians who use hate and fear to win votes. And yes, conspiracy theorists have, thanks to all the new forms of communication, whole new ways of feeding their poisonous delusions into the public realm.
But when all is said and done, the hate-and-fear mongers are a minority. The vast majority of Americans are sensible, decent and patriotic.
They come together regularly in their neighborhoods and communities in many different ways. Church groups, chambers of commerce, Lions, Rotarians, Elks, Masons, American Legionnaires, the Red Hats women’s clubs—the list goes on. Don’t forget hobbies and sports as unifying forces, too, like softball and bowling leagues, gardening and automobile clubs—even that hot new game of pickleball. Again, the list goes on.
Clearly, the folks who get together in these many forums have plenty of differences among them—political, social, religious, whatever it may be. And yet they can relax, agree to disagree and get along just fine.
What we need now is for all that comity to rise to the next level. When they come together in these various venues, folks need to say, “Let’s put the things we disagree on behind us and focus on the things where we see eye to eye.”
Then let’s reach out to others who feel the same way—there are all kinds of new communication methods and social platforms to do that—and raise our collective voices to demand action.
Now, this will sometimes mean exerting pressure on the people who are running for political offices. Not all the changes America needs require government action, but many will. For example, we can’t deal with the homelessness and the shortage of affordable housing that plague so many communities without some degree of government involvement. But that’s fine—it’s how the Progressive Movement succeeded, for example, with popular opinion compelling political responses and new laws and policies.
The concern, of course, is that once politicians get into the picture, the same old negativity and partisanship will take hold. But that’s not inevitable, at least not if enough people coalesce and keep demanding positive change and real action.
What will get people at the local level talking, agreeing and exerting leadership? That’s the dilemma, because if there’s going to be a grassroots movement in this country, it has to come from, yes, the grassroots. It’s not something some leader can impose. But there have been leaderless movements in history, lots of them.
I’m reminded of the story of a 19th-century French politician who jumped up and rushed out of the room when he saw a large, excited crowd stream past the window. “There go the people,” he cried out. “I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
I’m not looking for anything quite that dramatic. But if enough Americans in enough communities can demand action on the fundamental challenges facing our nation, then they’ll be the real leaders who motivate the supposed leaders to follow them.
Robert L. Dilenschneider is the Founder and CEO of The Dilenschneider Group, an international communications firm.