A few months after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, the College Democrats of Suffolk University in Boston kindly asked me to come to speak with them. They were awesome: They embody and give voice to so many things that make one optimistic about our country’s future. They embrace our diversity as our greatest strength. They are fearless and undaunted by the challenges we face —as a country, and as one human family on this finite planet.
When I opened up the floor to questions, a young man in the front row asked me, “What do you believe is the single biggest issue facing our nation?” Good question. In fact, it is the sort of question media consultants are paid lots of money to train their candidates never to answer.
Because in our trivial, zero-sum politics where fear of loss has (temporarily) replaced “future preference” as a national ethic, saying any issue is “number one” means all other issues are number two, and therefore not a priority for you. But I was never very good at taking advice from political consultants. And, besides, I was no longer a candidate.
“The single biggest issue facing our nation?” I repeated. An uncomfortable silence passed. Then the truth came out: “Trust, or rather — a lack of trust — is the single biggest issue we face as a people right now.”
I didn’t elaborate. Didn’t have to. They knew. It will be up to this generation to help the rest of us unpack all the distrust we’ve built up as a nation. Against the media, against science, against our national government; against political parties, public institutions, banks, phone companies, “the elites,” millionaires and billionaires, this ethnic group or that religious group. And — most troubling of all — against each other.
Today, according to recent polling, one out of four Americans would be “open” to their own state’s secession from the Union. These modern-day secessionists live not only in the states of the former Confederacy. They live in Minneapolis, Boston and Palo Alto. It has grown nearly impossible for an American whose primary news source is Fox or MSNBC to have a meaningful conversation about our shared political life with another American whose primary channel is the other.
Separation, disintegration, building walls. Expectations can become behavior. When we expect our neighbors are so lacking in basic goodness that they cannot be trusted, then we act in accordance with that belief.
The reality is — our jobs recovery has been uneven both across the map of the United States and across the skills and education levels of our people. There was no “recovery” for those of us with a high school diploma or less. Take-home pay for too many Americans continues to flatline or decline. And these things will not change much until we face — and claim for ourselves — the better possibilities of the changing world around us.
We are stumbling backwards into a rapidly changing economy that we should be facing. Our leaders are acting like victims in a competition we should be winning.
No wonder so many Americans fear their family is doomed to receive the bitter and not the better part of this change. Or that so many Americans fear their own country doesn’t see them, hear them, or care about them.
We, Americans, are exceptional, but we are not super-human. And when people feel their country no longer works for them, voting becomes merely an act of protest.
Bruce Springsteen, the great poet laureate of the American Dream, once asked: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”
Sometimes great nations can make bad mistakes. But in our country, we have the opportunity to correct those mistakes quickly. It’s called, “voting.”
You see, you and I are part of a living, self-creating mystery known as, “The United States of America.”
But the promise at the heart of that mystery is actually a very real and concrete thing. It is the promise, the guarantee — the social contract between us and among us — that if we work hard and play by the rules, we will be able to give our children a better life.
However, this better life — this better future for our children — will not happen by itself. We must make it happen. And we can.
We do this by returning to our first principles as a nation. We do this by listening for and calling forward the goodness in our neighbors. We do this by taking actions consistent with our mostly deeply held beliefs as a people. We do this by squaring our shoulders to the rapid change of this new economy. We do this — as a country — by taking the actions necessary to make our children winners in this changing economy.
We have all that we need to harness the winds of change and win this Third Industrial Revolution “for ourselves and our posterity.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
Our economy is not money, it is people — all of our people. Our country is built by the labors of many, not by the wealth of a few. The more our people learn, the more our people earn.
Our democracy has been hacked and corrupted, but it can be reformed. Its integrity can be restored. And the same technologies that make us smarter consumers can also provide us with smarter and more effective governance.
Climate change is real, and it also the greatest business opportunity to come to the United States in a hundred years. No single public work will better enable us to win this Third Industrial Revolution than the move to a 100% Renewable Energy Grid.
The truth is, whatever continent our families might have come from, we are all in this together now. And the stronger we make our country, the more she will give back to our children and grandchildren.
Yes, we have been through our fair share of trials and challenges as a young nation. We are going through a big Constitutional crisis now. But one constant has remained. And it is the goodness within us as a people — a goodness that cannot be eclipsed for long.
Demagogues may have their day, but they cannot have our country.
We are a compassionate, caring and generous people. Our goodness is our common bond. It is not only the cure to what ails our Republic, but it is also the essence of who we are as a people.
We can look at recent events in the political life of our nation as things that are happening to us, or we can choose to see them as things that are happening for us. If we see them as happening to us, then we become victims. If we see them as happening for us, then we can become masters and creators of the next chapter of our story.
We have work to do. There is a brighter picture to paint — and darkness makes a great canvass.
I believe we have another 240 years of life-giving service ahead of us as a nation.
I believe The United States of America is large enough to carry the hopes and dreams we have for all of our children.
We are not victims. We are Americans. We make our own events.
This, We Believe.