Presidential elections present an opportunity for a broad public dialogue about the issues and policies for the country, a time for debate, discussion and exploration of options. But this has been a campaign full of vicious and demeaning rhetoric, a cacophony of bitter voices masking deep fears and heartfelt worries. The opportunity has been lost for a broad public discourse on the serious issues our country faces. Civil and polite dialogue has broken down entirely showing a lack of respect for the institutions of our democracy and for the individual participants in the contest. In the name of free speech, we have abandoned reasoned debate in favor of hurled insults and degrading parodies. Some observations emerge from my canvassing conversations with hundreds of citizens.
People feel a sense of betrayal in the unrealized hopes and expectations from the Obama administration. There was such a surge of optimism, with raised expectations of massive changes within the term of the first black President. But, by design, the institutions of government buffer the pace of change, and people feel frustrated. Hopes unrealized fuel cynicism and in some cases despair and anger. Few people understand how government is intended to work, the balance of powers among the branches or the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
People fear for the future. There are many forces beyond individual control – globalization, economic shifts, drought and floods. Drawn in part from concerns about changes proposed to address global warming, the unknown future drives people to nostalgia for the past. The Clean Power Plan addressed the technology shift and fuel changes away from fossil sources, but the human and community impacts were not included in the legislation. Such matters as worker transition, community redevelopment and education fall outside the jurisdiction of the EPA enabling legislation. In a Congress where over 50% of members deny the existence of climate change or global warming, the broader policy initiatives necessary for a just and comprehensive shift are impossible to execute. A nostalgia for the heyday of coal, oil and gas development with the mist of time obscuring the problems of the early industrial age, easily grew to a cry of a War on Coal. The personalized plight of coal miners also obscures the broader issues of the treatment of workers and restoration of communities that have festered for decades. The focus on the “All of the Above” energy strategy has glossed over the devastation to the land and the life support systems that protect the clean air, fresh water and fertile ground. The Standing Rock Sioux have taken a stand for preserving the land as a sacred obligation. Their lesson is a powerful recalibration of the equation that has placed jobs at any cost over preservation of the land.
People lack empathy for their fellow citizens. They are focused on their own individual situations and have little interest in the broader common needs. The sense of a common purpose as a community or as a nation is absent. The mentality of preserving individual rights and freedom to do as they please without regard for others is prevalent. This campaign has made the use of hurtful, degrading and disrespectful language appear normal. Without a sense of mutual respect, civil society will not survive. Without recognizing and taking responsibility for inequities and injustice, we cannot make necessary changes to insure that all citizens live under the promises of the Constitution. The sense that everyone has the same rights does not come across as a personal obligation to every citizen.
So on this eve of the 2016 election, I plead once again for the higher principles of our nation to prevail. The rights offered under our Constitution are open to everyone equally, under the law. But people have taken the right of freedom of speech and right to bear arms to an extreme level, ignoring the responsibility to respect each other. These freedoms exercised without responsibility or accountability lead to chaos. A representative democracy requires citizen involvement, not just at election season, but all the time. Once in office, elected officials need to be called to account for their actions. Citizens have the obligation to make their voices heard in communications, in peaceful demonstrations, in action on legislative proposals throughout the course of the years. Elected Officials take an oath to defend and protect the Constitution, and that includes the rights of all of the citizens, the people. This concept has been perverted to include “corporations” as “Persons” but they are not living beings who breathe and bleed. The commitment to the public interest over corporate greed must be re-established as a national priority.
Citizens must take back the control of the government by caring about each other as communities, and holding elected officials accountable. The time is now to vote out people who are not serving the public good so we can start over. Democracy is not a spectator sport that occurs once every four years. It is a daily exercise of responsibility. Begin by voting on the issues, not on the undocumented rhetoric of the campaign. The fate of our nation and of the policies that may preserve life on Earth as we know it hang in the balance.