November 2018 Column: Positive Visions Needed in Politics
Some of my favorite stories are the legends about King Arthur. They are as ancient as almost any story in English, and though they contain contradictions with each other and with their historical basis, something about them has preserved their power for a thousand years. Politically, they speak of a king who – unlike so many rulers of that age – was about more than conquest. The stories include Arthur’s fights to establish his reign, but they focus on what that reign brought to his country: peace, for the first time in anyone’s memory; the security that allows free commerce and travel; new systems of justice that protected the weak from the strong. While most kings, and indeed queens, have spent their stories stuck in “fight mode” and consumed their time battling real or imagined enemies, King Arthur inspires us with the promise of a ruler who moves beyond fighting to governing. His tale may be a needed reminder in today’s politics. The U.S. is in fight mode. Democrats, mobilized by anti-Trump sentiment, campaigned in 2018 almost exclusively on what they were “not” and what they would “resist” and little on what they would do if they took power. Trump himself created an alt-right mobilized around fighting instincts – anti-immigrant, anti-government, or simply anti-Democrat. Meanwhile, most U.S. citizens are left disillusioned with the whole system, for want of discussion on forward-thinking policy. It’s okay to say what we don’t want when necessary, and it is certainly essential to fight for what we believe in. But fighting cannot be the default mode of a successful society. At some point, we must govern. Negative rhetoric and fears about what we do “not” want can motivate voters. But excitement about a positive vision brings more voters to the polls (think Obama ‘08). Voters need a reason to show up, and a reason to vote for a particular candidate. We care little who a candidate likes or doesn’t like. We want to know what they would do for us if elected. I wrote my first Bulletin guest column on inauguration day of 2017. I wrote about a Langston Hughes poem, which I had heard from U.S. Senator Cory Booker at a progressive legislators conference, about “America” as an all-inclusive definition. Booker’s point was that we often share the same visions for the future, and I could picture voters of every ideology relating to such forward-thinking imagery about this country’s promise. Particularly looking ahead to the 2020 elections – our chance to change political rhetoric from partisan to policy-focused, from divisive to unifying, from scary to practical – we need candidates, organizers, and citizens who focus on positive, proactive visions. Focusing on a positive vision is not only the moral move; it is politically expedient as well. In politics, any time you are on the defensive you are losing. Having positive, proactive messages allows candidates to pivot responses to criticism or to irrational rhetorical attacks into reinforcements of their visions for where we should go. In so doing, they help change campaigns from process-oriented horseraces to grand debates about meaningful ideas. System-level, future-oriented ideas are both less controversial and more exciting. Imagine where we would be on education policy if we’d gotten out of fight mode in 2016, and instead of simply saying “no” to new charter schools we’d had a campaign based on a comprehensive vision of how Massachusetts schools should be. Education is one of many central issues that are unifying nationally as well – when messaged separately from partisan rhetoric. (The “Affordable Care Act” gets different supporters from “Obamacare.” Some poll respondents both support the U.S. being in the Paris Climate Agreement and also support Trump withdrawing from it, because of loyalty to him.) If a group of political leaders broke out of fight mode for a minute, left aside partisanship and the preconceived biases that come with it, and started promoting a practical, positive policy vision, we could see tremendous improvement for millions of people. King Arthur realized a vision of proactive, positive governance. His story stands out among legends as a reminder that we can’t only fight, we must also build. When I heard Booker speak that day in December 2016, I heard in the words of Langston Hughes the same kind of reminder – of the power of a positive vision to transcend the divisiveness of the present, which is easy to fight about, to bring us closer to a vision of the future, which is easier to agree about.