In the aftermath of yet another 50/50 election in America — this one wilder than most — Washington seems ready to continue torching the already scorched earth remnants of zero-sum politics. Many wonder how much worse can the political climate get. I’m consumed by the question of how can we make it better?
American society is in a drought, an arid wasteland after twenty years of political power struggles.
On one side, Democrats seek to gain power to advance their agenda of helping the marginalized and underprivileged, then use their power to grow government with mixed results.
On the other side, Republicans seek to gain power to advance their agenda of halting the growth of government, then use their power to grow government with mixed results.
Americans overwhelmingly reject progressivism, but don’t see a vision from conservatives that will bring order from the chaos. We grind through candidates and majorities like shifting sand.
We watch as vitriolic crowds rally, riots attack communities and the Capitol, Supreme Court nominees are accused of serial rape — and the opponents are blamed for the noise.
We see bipartisan hubris. Humility and respect are stricken from talking head debates. We just want fighters.
In this boiling power struggle, we have become consumed with politics. Politicians are modern gladiators, slaying their opponents to the cheers of the crowd, only to be cut down by the next champion. They are only as good as their last tweet. It has become blood-sport, and there is no last man standing.
As we live, work, worship, and even relocate into more narrow tribes, we become more strident and less rational. We become less forgiving, less understand, less willing to respect one another for our differences. We become less American.
Who will plant a tree in the desert?
Bringing life to an arid, lifeless environment may seem preposterous, and is easier done in the literal Sahara than the hot, dusty expanse of American politics.
In fact, trees have been planted in deserts, creating oasis and fertile farms in arid regions. From India to Jordan and Australia, innovative farmers are finding ways to bring life to previously unusable land.
The common need, of course, is water. Most of these reclamation efforts tap into deep, underground water aquifers. Trees like the acacia can grow deep roots and thrive with little water, while providing rich nutrients for the soil. These hardy trees provide nutrients and shade that enable other plants to grow, creating remarkable transformations to the landscape in just a few years.
In India, farmers in dry regions are switching their crops to less thirsty options, creating hope where none existed.
Just as these innovative agrarians reach into the dirt and foster life, we can revitalize our nation’s politics.
Like water to a tree, the wellspring of American politics is a shared belief in freedom and opportunity. You may not believe that your opponents support life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but they do.
We all believe in a system that treats people equally. We all believe that each individual can make a difference. The human desire for freedom and opportunity is the the spring that always bubbles to the surface.
When we realize that we all drink the same water of freedom and opportunity, we can plant ideas with deep roots that draw on that shared vision. Despite political rhetoric, not every issue today is partisan. Most Americans want to see criminal justice reform. Most want access to quality health care. Most — nearly all of us — want to have a healthy, vibrant economy.
We will differ wildly on how to fix those problems, but if we plant the foundation of common purpose, it will provide nutrients and cover for more fragile debates on policy.
Finally, we have see each other, once again, as friends and neighbors. We are not enemies, we are fellow citizens. Sometimes — and we are all guilty — we stake out firm positions on single issues. Like an invasive crop that drains water and nutrients from its surrounding environment, we destroy relationships and progress. When we demand litmus tests on niche issues we are killing society.
This does not mean we change our principles. It does mean we change our priorities. It means we realize the threat facing our nation’s future is greater than the other side winning.
I’ve worked in politics for too long to believe that there will be a magical moment like the end of a Disney movie, when everyone will come together, shake hands, and with renewed respect and resolve, work together to save the village / kingdom / whale habitat.
I do believe though that we can find small ways to plant a seed of hope and find common ground.
We can all plant a tree in the desert, and harvest the fruits of this beautiful nation.