America’s nightmare is over. Or is it? Toxins infused into the body politic through a protracted and horrific campaign are not easily purged. It was not only the candidates who flaunted basic values of honesty, respect and decency, abetted by a rating hungry media. We, voters and non-voters alike, were complicit, either by our silence, or by what we said or passed on or simply by the relish with which we watched the debacle, like kids at a food fight.
It would be both naive and irresponsible to expect the restraint of the President-elect, the Democratic opposition and the media to restore civility to our political life. The hurts are deep, the pains real and the benefits alluring. We should expect more provocations that mess with our emotions and release more toxins.
No, if the toxins are to be purged, it must be done by us, by citizens who choose to stop playing the game and accept responsibility for the mess. It means making a fresh start, resetting our inner clocks.
How do we do this?
Perhaps a first step is to pause and consider in the quiet of our own hearts how we might have behaved differently during the campaign.
Secondly, we could resolve to stop playing the blame game. Cease rehearsing arguments that demonize the ‘other’. Turn off the hyper-partisan talk shows. Stop passing along social media postings that only raise blood pressure. Stop stereotyping and develop a healthy skepticism about what purports to be news.
Thirdly, let’s start listening, especially to those with whom we disagree. Reach out to neighbors, workmates and those in our own families who think differently, and discover what are their real concerns. Read and reflect on varied viewpoints. Look for common ground and appreciate sensible observations from the other side. That’s what problem solvers do, and we can do that.
Fourthly, talk dispassionately about our genuine fears. This will not be easy, especially for African Americans, Muslims, the LGBTQ community and recent immigrants, or for those whose jobs do not in fact come back. We observed in the election that unexpressed fear was the elephant in the room. Yet when we bring our fears to the table, and take even a small step towards those we fear, we will discover that fear loses some of its power.
Fifthly, we can remind ourselves that American institutions remain sound. Our courts will not roll over. Congress will not become a cipher. A free press will continue to uncover truth. The non-profit sector will remain strong. Our political parties will take steps to broaden their bases. Business leaders will not tolerate a potentially disastrous trade war and corporations and communities will continue to take practical steps to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Finally, we can act together at the local level to address problems. This will involve robust debate, for differences are real. But if we focus on the problem and not on the politics, we can get things done that will benefit all, and set an example for a Congress that has excelled in stalemate.
If we citizens take these simple though challenging steps, we will gradually restore confidence in our capacity to engage the other and together solve some of the country’s and the world’s most intractable problems.
Dick Ruffin was executive director of IofC USA for 23 years. In the late 1980s, he launched consultations for the international work of MRA that led to the creation of the International Council, the change of name to Initiatives of Change and the founding of IofC International, of which he was Executive Vice President for eight years. He is retired and lives with his wife in Amissville, Virginia.