Vermont Public Radio asked me to write a commentary about the challenges of the electoral season, and if I had any ideas or insights which might make the whole process a little easier for their listeners. Me? Have ideas?
The We of Us
I tend to turn my head away during election season. It’s just so...tacky. I mean, who decided that the best way to select our leaders was through platitudes, lying, finger-pointing, issuing oversimplified, overinflated promises, and littering our roadsides with ten thousand mini-billboards - none of which (I might add) have any sense of aesthetics or graphic design?
I do feel guilty about ignoring it. I’ve always believed that if I’m going to live in this world, then I need to step up and participate. And politics are an inescapable part of that. But still, something’s just always felt wrong.
Then, the other day, I was poking around on line and found, back to back, photos of tea party rallies around the country, and an article about sustainability initiatives in Portland, Oregon. Turns out many of the projects were started by neighborhood community groups, who then reached out to partner with local government to help develop things further.
I had a thought that part of the anger of the Tea Party movement is in people not feeling like they have the capacity or resources to solve their own problems. And the mistaken assumption that those problems can only get solved by elected leadership.
Conversely, the folks in Portland have taken the responsibility of addressing their needs and realizing their visions upon themselves. They've done it by working together as a community, and then inviting elected leaders into the process.
I think a lot of political campaigns are based on promises of what I, the candidate, am going to do for you, the voter.
But, once elected, we've had this tendency to hope our leaders will "save" us. And when things remain challenging, when the big problems are still big and life doesn't seem better immediately, it's as if the hero has fallen. But more than that, it's like the powerful parent figure has failed us, the powerless child.
The irony of our current electoral climate is that when Obama ran for President, his message was Yes we can. We. Everyone. But maybe there was a secret hope that this guy would swoop in and save us. The truth is, though, our problems took a long time to create, and will take a long time to solve. No one person is going to "save" us. And that savior idea ultimately makes us feel powerless - then scared - then angry. And often angry at the wrong people.
Perhaps the trick is in shifting our expectations away from what we want our leaders to do for us, and towards who we think can work best with us.
Maybe a good leader is someone who creates an environment which supports people in realizing their own capacities to the fullest extent.
We need to answer for ourselves the question of what kind of a world we want to live in, and then assume the responsibility for working to realize that vision. Elected leadership is just a piece of the puzzle.