There is a lot that could be said right now. There is a lot being said. I am hesitant to jump into the fray, because our first reactions are rarely our best. I process through writing, so it’s with humility that I share what’s on my mind right now.
My heart aches for my country. I think most of us feel that way. Political divisions have deepened into a chasm. Political extremism, now propagated from the highest office in the land, has pushed us to the brink.
How do we move forward? Sure, we have a change in national leadership coming in two weeks, but we all know that doesn’t magically fix what’s clearly broken. Is there even common ground to be found any more?
I believe there is. I see a common thread that weaves its way through so much anger and fear.
We are all feeling, deep in our guts, that our government institutions are no longer serving the interests of the people.
That’s it. That’s the common thread.
We know it’s true. We sense with mounting and sometimes explosive frustration the ways in which our systems are failing us. We see those failures costing lives and livelihoods. Some of us have experienced this through generations of oppression. Others of us have felt it more in recent years. But instead of recognizing this common experience and working together to build better, fairer institutions that will more directly serve all our interests, we have allowed ourselves to be misinformed and manipulated. We have turned our anger on our fellow citizens. We have put our faith – and I use that word intentionally, as much of what has developed is cultish idolatry – in political figures. We have forgotten that it is we the people who bear the responsibility and the power to steer this enormous, complicated, unwieldy ship.
Taking back that responsibility doesn’t look like a deadly hissy fit that attempts to derail democracy when your guy loses. It looks like rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard work of learning and understanding. (Why does it feel like citizen voices are not heard by those in power? What’s actually driving policy right now? What would it take to make real change?) We must make a deliberate decision to reject divisive messaging that turns us against each other. We must choose to hear stories that make us uncomfortable, to listen to experiences that don’t mirror our own.
I’m going to repeat something I’ve said often: sources of information matter. SOURCES OF INFORMATION MATTER.
We saw yesterday the terrifying consequences of misinformation. Pulling our republic back from the brink will take a conscious decision to trust sources of information with a professional obligation to objectivity and nonpartisan understanding. The alternative is to allow the self-interest of those in power to manipulate not just our opinions but our understanding of reality itself.
Democracy has always rested on access to factual information. The American Revolution developed when a people had the ability to collectively follow events as they unfolded and openly discuss and debate ideas. It was this free flow of information that enabled self-governance. Our founders understood this when they enshrined both free speech and a free press in the first amendment to our Constitution.
I have heard friends suggest that dictators start by disarming citizens. Disarming may happen, but another step always comes first. Every tyrant who has ever successfully suppressed a people has used the control of information as a first and primary weapon. That often looks like shutting down or discrediting objective sources of information, convincing the public they can only trust sources that validate a certain perspective. It also looks like flooding information channels to sow confusion. (“In all this noise, who knows what’s true? I’ll just trust people I like to tell me what to believe.”) Unprincipled leaders weaponize information to whip up rage and resentment and direct it at political rivals and other groups of citizens.
Misinformation otherizes. It dehumanizes. It divides. It weakens. It manipulates. It benefits only those with the power to control it.
We must choose better. Knowing the truth and understanding the underlying challenges that threaten our nation takes real work. It takes discomfort. It takes a willingness to set aside our anger, however justified, and to admit our mistakes and learn. It takes empathy and patience. It takes a determination to participate in the democratic process. It takes a will to act with thoughtful purpose, not just for ourselves but for all those around us. It’s slow and unglamorous work.
I don’t know whether our collective society has the capacity for that work. I think that remains to be seen in the coming weeks and months. Will we see yesterday for the dire warning it is and correct course, or will we continue down the path that led us here? The answer lies with each of us, and the choices we make today and every day after.