A presidential election naturally concentrates America’s attention. For a time, everything seems to depend on the answer to one clear and simple question.
But then what? On rare occasions, the country’s fate really does rest on a discrete set of policy choices embodied by competing candidates.
More often, though, our deepest problems aren’t really amenable to resolution by a president. These problems have been adding up to something of a social crisis, evident not only in the breakdown of our political culture but also in the isolation and despair that have driven up suicide and opioid-abuse rates, and in a sense of alienation that leaves whole communities feeling excluded from the American story and in turn angrily rejecting it.
Even in a time of bitter partisanship, we know we need more than the right person in power. Each party treats the other as a mortal threat to America’s future, and so persuades its voters that electing the wrong president would make things worse.
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But that doesn’t help us see how to make things much better. If you think our country has bigger problems than just the people you disagree with, then you’re likely to find that they aren’t swept away by an election victory.
In fact, these problems now make it difficult for us to have traditional policy arguments. As the intensity of the election subsides, we now need to ask ourselves how to deal with hopelessness and hostility, because they undermine the preconditions for a functional politics.
The answers may be closer than we think. At the heart of our pervasive crisis of alienation are widespread failures of responsibility, deep-seated cultural divisions and a deadly dearth of solidarity. Such challenges can seem impossibly immense when we look at our country from the top down. No president could resolve them, no Congress could address them. But from the bottom up, there are more opportunities to take them on.
That’s not because there is some magic to local action. It’s because what has broken down is fundamentally communal and institutional, so that a recovery of the ethos required for our national politics to function is likely to happen closer to the interpersonal level.
It can begin with a simple question, asked in little moments of decision: “Given my role here, what should I be doing?” As a parent or a neighbour, a pastor or a congregant, an employer or an employee, a teacher or a student, a legislator or a citizen, how should I act in this situation? We ask that question to recover relational responsibility.
A failure to ask questions
A failure to ask that question — and so to accept the obligations that come with whatever positions and privileges we have in our lives — is behind many of the most significant problems we face. It’s why so many of our fellow Americans have been left feeling that our institutions have failed to treat them like human beings.
It has been at the heart of President Trump’s failures, as he has plainly neglected to ask himself how a president should act. But it has also characterised to varying degrees some of his critics, who have forgotten their distinct responsibilities — as journalists or scientists, legislators or law enforcement officials — and have instead become performers in our manic political theatre.
But more important, it is at the heart of the way we Americans have failed one another by failing to ask what the roles we each have in particular institutions — familial, communal, religious, educational, professional, civic and political — demand of us in key moments. Often what they demand is restraint and responsibility, doing your job rather than building your brand.
And implausible as it may seem, our country is starving for such straightforward integrity. The hunger for it doesn’t take the forms we might expect. It doesn’t look like earnest appeals to virtue and rectitude.
It might look more like students demanding conformity when what they really seek is morally legitimate authority. It might look like communities angry at generations of mistreatment reaching at first for a vocabulary of resistance and rejection but ultimately yearning for inclusion, equal justice and belonging. Or it might come in the guise of a populism that insists it sees corruption in all directions but is ultimately desperate for an integrity that it can barely name.
We tend to look at forms of breakdown in our society in terms of what they produce: anger, cynicism, a rejection of tradition. But we would be wise to also consider what they implicitly demand and yearn for: responsibility, integrity and, above all, solidarity.
Change must begin with us
Our national politics needs these, too. But they will come from below — from local and state government, where it’s harder to avoid dealing with concrete problems, and from civil society, where we encounter one another on a personal level. We cannot stand with our arms folded and hope we’ve finally elected the people who will deliver them. They must begin with us, where we are.
They start when we see problems around us as reasons to think creatively about how to act together: to help people who are short of food in this pandemic, to organise schools that will teach our children what our community cherishes most, to help our neighbours feel respected and safe, or to care for our environment or protect and welcome the unborn.
Different Americans will have different priorities. But pursuing them effectively requires understanding those priorities as our responsibilities and approaching our society in the first person plural — speaking less about “them” and more about “us.”
That is only a beginning — not a substitute for better public policy but perhaps a prerequisite for it. Some of the deepest troubles of this moment require us to see our society as the sum of our affinities and obligations to one another, and so to heal what’s broken from the bottom up.
Yuval Levin, the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs, is the author of “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American dream.”