There was a magical moment the other day when my son smiled up at me with bright eyes, complete trust, and unfettered happiness. I’d do anything and everything to defend that smile.
I am one of the many women who ran for local office in 2018. I ran because I am a mother. The best thing I could do for my children, I knew, to ensure their way of life, their happiness, was to show them that running for office was worth doing and that regular people could do it. Then, hopefully, my children would inhale my exhales about participatory democracy, exemplify those ideals, and pass them on like stories.
I believe in government. As a current member of the Lake County Board and throughout my previous work as an aide in the Minnesota State Senate, one thing has held true—government is full of civil servants. Hired, appointed, or elected, it is dominated by people who want to do the work, even when the circus swirls around them.
The circus does exist, of course. But government is far more defined by people who enjoy connecting dots and solving problems. They coordinate traffic signals to decrease congestion, find ice melt that keeps drivers safe while reducing harm to the environment, and research groundbreaking ways to allow a creek to flow around a beaver dam, preventing flooding of farm fields while letting the beaver colony remain part of the ecosystem. They build trails, coordinate services for abused children, and help those in need find food and shelter. They do this largely out of public view, because so few pay attention.
The Reagan mentality that government is the problem has done as much to damage our democracy as anything. Cynicism, as comic Steven Colbert says, only masquerades as wisdom. But cynicism is powerful—as long as people distrust government, government can get away with anything. The more people look away, the worse it gets, reinforcing their false notions, and the cycle of distrust continues until you have an oligarchy in power, a president who encourages the overthrow of an election, and a political party that lets him.
We currently face blinding truths that showcase our country’s imperfections and there are many, many worthwhile reforms to consider. But government itself is not the problem. Not in America. The problem is that too many people don’t know that.
One of the most important things we can do right now is re-ignite a sense of civic pride. Not easy, flag-pin-wearing pride but pride hard won—off the sidelines and into the fray.
We need to:
1. Provide robust and participatory civics education at all grade levels that includes internships, city council meetings, town halls, and teachers passionate about the subject. Treat civics as importantly as we do S.T.E.M. Encourage discussion of campaigns and elections in grade school classrooms. Stop writing angry emails to teachers who dare try.
2. Teach all of our history. We cannot feel pride at having overcome obstacles—we cannot overcome them—if we pretend they don’t exist. Calls for unity above all else exemplify a longstanding and pervasive tradition of moving on instead of understanding. To love America, you have to know America. This will make many people, particularly white people, uncomfortable. We can handle it.
3. Learn how to talk politics. Stop teaching children that “politics” is a dirty word. Embrace intelligent debate. The exchange of ideas, whether on the Senate floor or at the dinner table, is not rude—it’s how great nations are made and kept.
There is no law of the universe that I will always be able to send my children to public school or speak openly to the newspaper or travel to the west side of town to meet friends for coffee. There is no Fairness Doctrine that says I will always be able to contemplate my son’s smile on a January morning.
These freedoms were planned, fought for, and carried out by people over generations who believed in our American ideals. Maintaining our democratic republic is up to us, eyes wide open—regular people doing for our country, whether by running for office, attending a city council meeting, or simply refuting the claim that government is the problem. Having enough hope to continue on, and enough wisdom to know why.
Wisdom with hope. That is who we can be.