In defense of government

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.

It’s Not About Policy, It’s Not About Losing, and It’s Not About Clinton

A few years ago, I told my friend, Melanie, who is black, about a black family, all adults, I’d encountered on a plane. The family shouted in glee as the plane took off. I asked the father if this was their first time flying and he said no, they just loved it. I commented to Melanie that it was an example of a difference, broadly speaking, between white and black people. No white people I knew would ever whoop it up on takeoff just for the fun of it. We’re generally too reserved.

She asked me had it been a boisterous white family, would I have thought, “Hmmm, first time”? I answered that I would have.

But that question stayed with me. I didn’t know why. I’d find myself reminded of it, and turn it around in my head. I’d picture a boisterous white family on the plane, and I’d re-confirm that yes, I would have assumed it was their first time.

Still, I’d find myself thinking of it again a few months later. I finally began to think it was just one of those things we writers do. We’re interested in human nature, we ask difficult questions and noodle on the answers obsessively.

Then, a few months ago, four years after she first asked me the question, I realized I’d been wrong. And it came down to the clothes.

The black family on the plane were dressed up—suits and ties, dresses, heels. The white family in my mind, the one I was sure I’d also assume was flying for the first time, were dressed like poor people. I can see them now: a housedress, frayed t-shirts, jeans. When I re-imagined the white family dressed like rich people, I realized no, I wouldn’t have wondered if it was their first time flying. I would have wondered if they were drunk.

Currently, in this country, we have a disagreement about what racism is.

It’s not just the obvious list of people who spray-paint swastikas on synagogues and won’t let their daughter marry a Mexican.

Racism is also quiet, the silence that doesn’t call someone out for using the word “n****r” in a joke, or assumes black people, like poor people, can’t afford to fly, or allows a candidate to perpetuate the myth that President Obama wasn’t born here and many illegal immigrants are “rapists” who bring “tremendous crime” to America.

It’s this allowance, this acceptance–this refusal to noodle on the question–that is as dangerous as any guy in a white hood.

People voted for Trump for all kinds of reasons, I understand that. I want change, too. I want lower debt, manufacturing jobs, less gaming of the welfare system. I have more in common with Republicans than many of them think, and I voted for one on the ballot this year.

As someone who didn’t vote for, or like, Clinton the first time she ran, I can also understand that some people didn’t want to vote for her.

I can understand why it’s hard to self-reflect on racism. No one besides proud racists thinks they have racism in them, including me.

What I haven’t yet been able to understand, no matter how many conversations I’ve had or articles I’ve read, is how people were able to ignore some of the more objectively unacceptable of Trump’s offenses. The ones that can’t be nuanced or finessed or explained away.

None of us—literally, none—would be okay with some old guy peeping at our daughters in a locker room. How, then, are some of us okay with our president-elect doing it? This isn’t some crazy liberal accusation. Trump admitted he did it.

None of us would be okay with a man grabbing our genitals without asking. Even if you believe Trump was simply bragging on the bus like a drunk nineteen year old (and believe all the women who have accused him of sexual assault are lying) the Republicans I know would knock out the sonofabitch who talked like that about their daughters, not elect him president.

How do we tell our daughters it’s what is in their hearts and minds that matters, not the shape of their bodies, but support a man who rates women using a number?

How do we promote kindness and tell our children bullying is wrong, that mocking the disabled student in a wheelchair is wrong, when we allow it in our candidate?

It’s this disconnect—the refusal to put up with it in our private lives but the willingness to endure it in a president—that have many people stunned.

The deepest disappointment I feel–the one some on the right are telling people like me to get over–isn’t about policy and it’s not about losing. It’s not about “what might have been” if we’d elected a woman president.

It’s about my core values, the ones I impart to my children, and knowing that my future president undermines them. Since I was a 4th grader devouring biographies on Lincoln, I have admired leaders who appeal to the better angels of our nature. Trump didn’t do so as a candidate. I hope he can rise to the occasion as president.