Refocusing the Future of American Politics

Look through a magnifying glass that shows the text "We the people"
Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

Vision and Values Must Anchor Our Commitment to Action

The 2020 Presidential horse race is already heating up. It’s rare that a conversation doesn’t include someone asking which candidate you prefer or who you expect to win.

In spite of the divergent branding and inspirational talking points, scores of candidates who have entered the race seem to have overlooked a key lesson from the 2016 campaign: Values and vision are the most powerful motivators of meaningful political action. Focusing voter attention on anything else plays into the political popularity contest that distorts elections and, ultimately, governance.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton spent a lot of time talking about policy, and very little time discussing her broad vision for America and the values that guide her as a leader. Her campaign staff did the same. I know because I was one of them.

As a field organizer in Florida, I worked alongside an incredibly talented team of staff and volunteers to “get out the vote.” But the absence of explicitly communicated values and an inspirational vision made it extraordinarily difficult to motivate broad support. On November 9, 2016, many liberal pundits blamed Donald Trump’s election on Clinton’s “poorly run campaign,” when in fact the gravest stumbling block was the absence of a prevailing ideology.

The 2016 election was a wake-up call. Without clear values and a vision for the future, voters have nothing to believe in.

I realized that to change the future of politics, we must build local power anchored in a shared vision for the future. I set out to find ways to engage more people in meaningful conversations about our shared vision for politics. Through both the Vision Project in Brooklyn and the Purpose Power Town Hall Tour, I seek to create spaces that invite people to more deeply understand each other and together shape a shared vision for the future. I believe that to strengthen the civic fabric of our society, we have to bring diverse people together, listen to each other’s needs and desires, and co-create a plan for progress that represents our collective values.

Purpose Over Policy

In the summer of 2016, I considered how it would feel to wake up on November 9, 2016 to “President Trump” without having done all I could to have prevented that outcome. I quit my job and moved to Florida to join the Hillary Clinton campaign as a field organizer.

When we lost the election, I was overcome with grief and confusion. How could we have worked so hard, believed in something so much, and still failed? During the weeks and months that followed, I thought about what we missed. My reflections centered on three things: voting, values, and vision.

Democratic campaign communication has devolved to focus on identity groups and hot-button issues, relying on old policy accomplishments, like Social Security, Medicare, and the New Deal, to drive voter engagement rather than looking boldly toward the future. Not surprisingly, many voters are uninspired by this hollow narrative. According to a 2017 Pew poll, a majority of Americans believe their children will be worse off than they were. As an organizer in Florida, I learned how hard it is to convince someone they should participate more deeply in a system that has repeatedly failed them.

People Over Process

So often, civic engagement focuses on the fanfare of Election Day. But voting is an important civic action only a slim majority of Americans choose to take because of the great distance that exists between average people and politics. More meaningful engagement — the kind that can motivate real progress — begins months or even years before.

Some blame those who don’t vote for America’s political woes, but this accusation of willful ignorance doesn’t take into account systemic pressures that distance average people from politicians. What pundits call apathy is in many cases disillusionment and disengagement, which leaves many people unsure of who to vote for. Most working Americans are often stretched thin just trying to make ends meet, and often don’t feel they have the time to understand a system that can feel distant and complicated. What difference does their one vote make?

Encouraging people to vote (while important!) does not necessarily compel them to deepen their engagement with their communities. If you are invested in your community, you understand how local politics can affect the causes you care about. You feel compelled to vote because you understand its impact. Rather than serving as an initiation of civic action, voting is a culminating moment of sustained engagement, a measure of how embedded someone is within their community.

My time in Florida raised the question, “How might we refocus politics on people instead of process?”

Building Toward a Better Future

After I left the Clinton campaign, I went looking for an organization seeking to forge a shared vision for the future of politics — one that extends beyond the ballot box and is rooted in the ideas and input of average people. I found New Kings Democrats.

NKD had been working to reform the machine politics of Brooklyn politics for the better part of a decade. Despite the fact that 85 percent of Brooklynites are Democrats, politics in the borough is extremely factionalized and traditional norms of nepotism and closed-door dealmaking still dominate a great deal of the borough’s politics.

I joined NKD in 2017, just as they were initiating a project to define a positive vision for the future of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, based on the input of a diverse coalition of Brooklyn Democrats.

The Vision Project, led by a coordinating team of five people, produced a series of 17 community workshops that used human-centered design and appreciative inquiry to bring people together to discuss their shared vision for the future. So much of politics is taken up with the fraught competition of elections. These community conversations fostered trust and mutual support that had long declined in local politics. This effort was a big one, a feat of community organizing, engaging 300 participants in neighborhood conversations across a diverse borough.

Last month, we saw the fruits of these labors coalesce: Close to a hundred Brooklynites gathered at the YWCA in Brooklyn for a Community Convention. The Convention marked the first time many could remember a room of unlikely allies coming together to engage in positive future-focused dialogue. I had faith in a human-centered approach to civic engagement — where the people in the room are the experts, not a designated speaker. The success of the Vision Project confirmed this belief.

Two weeks after the Brooklyn Community Convention, I hosted the first Purpose Power Town Hall in New York City. Like the Vision Project workshops leading up to the convention, the town hall brought together a diverse group of people. The common thread bonding attendees to one another was our focus on a better future, even if we believed in different mechanisms to get there. Some wanted to see a world that was less lonely or apathetic. Others planned to run for city council and make their neighborhoods more equitable.

I left the first Purpose Power Town Hall feeling my own sense of purpose renewed, and ready to take the town hall tour to Nashville, then to DC on April 11 and Hartford, CT and Poughkeepsie, NY later in May.

Today the world confronts a moment of social reckoning. Will we allow the market and the state to continue to crowd out citizenship? Or will we choose to create a new social order built on local civic action and mutual support?

Most of us are a great deal more powerful than we let ourselves believe. But using that power requires consistency and solidarity. I need you to hold me accountable to my commitment to be civically engaged, just as you need me to encourage you to believe change is possible.

Understanding our shared purpose — the values and vision that orient our commitment to take action — provides a foundation for mutual understanding from which collective action can emerge.

Over the next decade, governments around the world will confront the systemic challenges of rampant economic inequality, diminishing labor demand resulting from automation, and the persistent climate threat that, without massive changes in patterns of production and consumption, will result in disruptive coastal migration. While both governments and corporations must take action to address these challenges, their policies alone are unlikely to lead to necessary change.

Citizen power will be critical to transforming cultures of equity, work, and consumption in ways that are sustainable and mutually beneficial. At a community level, mutual understanding is a necessary starting place for the transformation of a new way of being, focused on vision and values, to take root.

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