Norman Rockwell it ain’t

To get a good read on the state of the union, just pull up a chair at the dinner table. More often than not in America these days, what you experience is not exactly a Norman Rockwell illustration.

Sharp political differences have some on pins and needles at holiday family gatherings. Some are at each other’s throats. So much so that many are cutting their get-togethers short, especially those who are traveling to what feels to them like enemy territory. After analyzing location data from 10 million smartphones and matching them to precinct-level voting data, researchers at two different major U.S. universities concluded that “partisan differences cost American families 62 million person-hours of Thanksgiving time.”

Democracy may be on America’s menu, but at least three key ingredients needed to make the dish are increasingly hard to find.

We can’t have a stable society much less a democracy without dialogue, and the capacity for dialogue is vanishing in America. We scream at one another, we hurl insults back and forth, or at best we talk past each other. We stay in the friendly confines of our own side’s echo chambers, hearing what we want to hear and what reinforces our own beliefs and filtering out the rest. We consume news tailored to our existing biases, leaving us with no common frame of reference on most any topic. This makes it next to impossible to have conversations that yield mutual understanding and make it possible to hash out differences.

We can’t have a stable society much less a democracy without citizenship, and citizenship is vanishing in this country. Civics in not meaningfully taught in school. Concern for the common good is becoming downright uncommon. Selfishness reigns supreme in modern American life. We work. We shop. We mostly keep to ourselves. Keeping to ourselves is incompatible with citizenship. Being a citizen is inherently social. Governing a society is intrinsically public. Generally speaking, Americans nowadays prefer all things private. More so than at any time in memory, public matters make us squirm, or even dread having dinner with extended family. Is it any wonder that a certifiable narcissist inhabits the nation’s highest office?

We can’t have a stable society much less a democracy without political institutions that are trusted and regarded as legitimate. Americans are increasingly sour on the two major parties and are longing for a viable alternative. Trust in government is low and falling. Americans are increasingly afraid, and concern about government corruption not only is on the rise but tops the list of fears.

Our country is in trouble. We have our work cut out for us. We need to change how we talk to each other so we can ultimately decide together what kind of society we want. We need to equip every American to be a full-fledged citizen in a democracy so the direction of our country can be decided by the many, not the money. And we need to challenge the political establishment to change its ways with the goal of transforming the parties and the political system so those who govern work for all of us instead of taking their cues from a privileged few.