Call me a contrarian. Or even a Pollyanna. But when everyone around me is filled with gloom and despair, seeing dire portents in every political headline, I try to find trends that encourage me.
And I’m finding them. It could be that my hopes outrun the realities. But I’m guardedly optimistic that’s not the case.
If there’s a single theme that ties them together, it seems to me that many people are beginning to view government with greater realism as to what it can do about improving the quality of life of our people. Don’t get me wrong — there are still plenty of Americans who believe that government is best which governs least, and many others who reflexively turn to government to solve our problems. Including some who profess to dislike government.
Still, amidst all of the past year’s political turmoil — in fact, in no small part because of it — there’s been a renewed understanding that this country is a work in progress; that it’s not yet finished creating itself. And so Americans of all ideological stripes are determined to question and challenge features of the political environment that concern them.
They’re looking at divisive issues like immigration with a dose of realism — an assessment of what should and can be accomplished — that hasn’t always been evident before. They’re standing up for better treatment of women and confronting the costs of past assumptions. They’re marching and protesting. They’re running for office. They’re scrutinizing public figures more carefully than in the past. In other words, there’s an energy and a vitality in the system that were hard to glimpse before.
Because politicians are pretty good at adjusting to the public mood, they’re becoming a shade less divisive, less polarized, less partisan, and maybe even less intolerant of different opinions. I’ve even seen some strike a note of humility. It’s possible I’m reading too much into this, but I think a growing number of Americans are tired of rancor, and are reasserting their respect for a nation founded on the principles of “out of many, one” and “freedom and justice for all.”
And so there are signs of more flexibility in political life — of politicians and ordinary Americans shying away from implacable positions. They recognize that it’s a big country and we have to make it work. They are beginning to see, I hope, what it means to be an American citizen: that you can’t be too dogmatic, that we need to accept differences and extend to everyone the opportunity to become the best they can be.
This is crucial, because the United States is changing in dramatic ways — becoming less white, less rural and suburban, more urban, more racially diverse, possibly a bit less religious. In many parts of the country there’s an understanding that whether we like it or not, our daily lives are affected by globalization and by forces exerted from far outside our immediate communities.
Now, there are plenty of counter-trends to everything I just said, and these get a lot of attention — indeed, they dominate our view of where the country stands right now. But as I survey the country and speak to different groups, I keep getting glimpses of the more hopeful trends I outline. So the question I come away with is, can they be sustained, nurtured, and enhanced?
And there, I’m afraid, I’m less hopeful. Because the answer depends upon the quality of our political leadership. For the most part, I don’t see our most prominent leaders stepping forward with the determination to move the country in a more unified direction. We’ve always risen to the challenge of deep-seated, fundamental change in the past, but that doesn’t mean we always will.
So where does that leave us as citizens? I think it falls to us to push the hopeful trends forward, to make them so obvious that they can’t be ignored. If we’re not at a crossroads, we’re certainly not far from one, and in the end, it’s up to each of us which direction we’ll take as a nation.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.