January 2017 Column: Reflections on national politics Writing this first column on the afternoon of President Trump’s inauguration, I was moved to offer words on some feelings broader than Massachusetts state politics. In the mid-1930s Langston Hughes wrote a poem beginning “Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be.” To the extent I can draw takeaways from the 2016 national election, I believe we all need to embrace this sentiment in a fresh way.
This past year there were problems in the world – among them racism, economic insecurity, sexism, and climate change. Except for climate change, none of these were new problems – they’ve been around for thousands of years. But we are looking at these issues very differently this decade. The rise of 24-hour news, social media, smartphones, and general globalization means that we now hear instantly about events or speeches that may have been considered insignificant 50 years ago.
And we hear the news through a self-selected set of sources, usually aligning with the ideology we already hold. So when someone makes an inflammatory remark on Twitter or Reddit, it can quickly stir up a frenzy of anger among like-minded citizens on either the “left” or “right” – and then traditional TV media often pick it up and announce it to everyone else as news. It is no wonder that emotions ran high all around when we had to either support, accept, or fight a candidate who embraced this form of fractured media.
And yet, I look at the feelings behind what people are saying, and see just about the same thing from all sides – not the same goal or policy prescriptions, but the same feeling: whether you are a poor farmer or shop owner struggling to earn enough to put kids through college; whether you are a black man or a Muslim woman afraid that your appearance will make you a target of violence; whether you are a veteran, or a Jew, or a coal worker angry that your identity is being attacked by someone; whether you are a new immigrant finding hostility rather than opportunity; or whether you are a woman frustrated that sexism held you back from becoming the first female President of the United States, I believe we are all saying something like “America is not working for me. I need a change.”
Some said it as “A future to believe in” and some as “Make America great again.” Some said it by not voting at all and some by spending every waking moment organizing for their candidate.
I ran for state representative because of a similar vision – a desire for system change rather than the status quo. Langston Hughes, though, gives us the idea that perhaps it is not that America, the country, needs to be made “great again” but that America, the dream, needs to exist again. He closes his poem saying “make America again!”
After the election I decided to start wearing an American flag pin, despite this being the most stereotypical of politicians’ fashion choices. It was because of what Langston Hughes expressed: America is a shared vision. It means possibility, and by definition it includes everyone. I repeat: America by definition includes everyone.
The alt-right disagrees, which is why we need to assert the truth of that vision, and we need to make it true in reality as well. As Hughes said “America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath – America will be!”
It is time to unite again around America as a vision, as the one identity we all share. Doing so doesn’t mean we agree on everything. I am comfortable sharing an American vision of possibility with President Trump and at the same time working against a great many of the policy changes and negative rhetoric he is likely to carry on over the next four years.
But bridging our differences as a society begins with finding common ground. Setti Warren, the mayor of Newton, recently published a column about bringing three Clinton supporters together with three Trump supporters for a friendly conversation, and the shared humanity that they found. That’s not possible for everyone, but neither is it unique to a Clinton/Trump divide. Similar emotions existed in our community between Bernie and Hillary supporters. Such divides will appear again. To make progress for any of us, we must believe in and engage with the political system despite our bitter disagreements. We must assert and own and work for a common vision, believing that someday, America will be.