Hidden Springs Lane, VA. On November 3, voters will cast ballots (unless they’ve done so previously) to elect either Donald Trump or Joe Biden as President. Conventional wisdom suggests Biden will win. However, the specter of 2016 lingers, making Democrats uneasy and giving Republicans hope.
Both candidates are deeply flawed. Nevertheless, people on both sides are calling this the most important election of our lifetime, or since 1860, or perhaps the most important election ever and upon which the fate of the world hangs. The high stakes are both an indication and a cause of the polarized condition of the American population. Political differences are today framed in terms of good vs. evil. This seems to require that the good strive diligently to destroy those who are evil. Such rhetoric is not political; it signifies, instead, the end of politics and the advent of total war.
Things are so fractured that some people on both sides are preparing to question the legitimacy of the outcome if their man loses, and others are suggesting the possibility of unrest, violence, and even civil war. Indeed, if gun sales are any indication, Americans are deeply concerned. First time gun purchases are at an all-time high. Ammunition is scarce and expensive.
Yet, regardless of who eventually settles into the oval office, our nation’s deep troubles will remain. The rancor of this political season provides a diversion from the hard and serious work that must be done to reverse the great unraveling that America is experiencing.
One symptom of our pathology is, ironically, our obsession with presidential politics. Our Constitutional order was created to prevent the accumulation of power in one person or body. Federalism sought to maintain a balance of power between the states, and the separation of powers sought to prevent any of the branches of government from dominating the others. Yet federalism has increasingly been overshadowed by the constantly expanding power of the national government, and the presidency has steadily come to overshadow the other two branches. This growth of the executive has increasingly drawn the attention of Americans, so that when people think about politics the first thing that comes to mind is the president. There is an irony in this obsession. As our attention on the presidency has increased, the quality of our leaders has decreased, the quality of our civic discourse has eroded, and the health of our local communities has diminished.
In 1960, Willmoore Kendall wrote that, “presidential elections cannot become the central ritual of our system without destroying the system.” Sixty years later, as the central ritual of our system plays out around us, it is clear to any attentive person that the system is coming apart. American citizens appear to be aligning themselves along battle lines in a war for the soul of the nation.
So what can be done?
Like all things of significance, the starting point is modest, even seemingly insignificant compared to the scale and noise of our current political circus: we must begin with the places we inhabit. To heal the nation, we must return home.
This means we must once again commit ourselves to the fundamental importance of families. Children need parents who are present and attentive. In our headlong pursuit of success, survival, or diversion, we seem to have less time for those who need it most. And even when we are present, we are often distracted by the “urgent” demands of the devices that once promised to liberate us. Given the example we set, is it any wonder that the kids have become equally absorbed?
Part of returning home entails engaging in our local communities. The opportunities are legion. Churches, struggling to navigate coronavirus restrictions, provide spiritual nourishment, meaningful relationships, and opportunities to serve. Local food banks operate using volunteers committed to providing for those in need. The elderly often need a hand with fall clean-up or with food deliveries during these dark Covid days. Local businesses need your support. While you’re at it, stop by a local coffee shop or brew pub and enjoy conversation with a friend.
Local communities need wise leadership. Local government is a place where citizens can make a real difference. Don’t like the local schools? Consider running for the school board. Or, alternatively, start a private school. Opportunities abound for citizens to act in concert to improve the health of their communities.
Americans must once again seek to cultivate what Wendell Berry calls “the neighborly arts.” These are the humble skills and inclinations that make it possible to “lend a hand.” The more we cultivate these modest arts, the more we will be able to depend on each other in times of need rather that on the largess of a government increasingly beset by the pathologies of inefficiency, anonymity, and debt.
Though it sounds simple, significant change will require effort. The first step is to crawl out from behind our screens—where it is so easy to behave badly—and cultivate real relationships with neighbors. Here’s a simple test all Americans should aspire to pass: look beyond the Trump or Biden sign in your neighbor’s yard and have a real conversation. Partisan politics should never trump neighborliness.
Of course, this all sounds altogether inadequate—like bringing a knife to the proverbial gun fight. Or Hobbits stealing into Mordor. Or a mustard seed becoming a tree. Or a king born in a stable. Yet great things begin with small things. And while national strategies, policies, and presidents matter, we must always begin and end at home, where our lives and loves are firmly rooted in the communities that give meaning to all the rest.
The real America still exists. It is increasingly lost in the avalanche of political ads, half-truths, vitriol, and posturing. The real America consists in local communities stitched together by local affections, local economies, local challenges and, more often than not, local solutions. Tocqueville understood that “the strength of free peoples resides in the local community.” In a time of unrest and uncertainty, Tocqueville’s dictum is more true than ever.
Thanks for this reminder. I believe it deeply and long have, yet the pathology, the unneighborliness, has certainly infected me, too.
I worry that the pandemic – the response to the pandemic – has simultaneously made us less inclined to feel neighborly toward those who respond differently, and more difficult to act in neighborly ways even if we can overcome our disinclination. I haven’t been to church in months; the pub where the conversations used to happen only does only take-out now. These restrictions make me angry, while making many of my neighbors feel safe.
The problem you describe is so much trickier than it was even six months ago.
–I worry that the pandemic – the response to the pandemic – has simultaneously made us less inclined to feel neighborly toward those who respond differently–
True, but I think the deeper and scarier issue is that it has made us less inclined to feel neighborly even toward those who respond the same way. A key meme of the response has been “mistrust everyone, even kids” with endless speculation about “asymptomatic transmission” and “super-spreaders” (strangely analogous to the “super-predator” meme of the Clinton era, which resulted in some draconian sentencing “reforms” that impacted black people disproportionately).
Nicholas Christakis, MD, of Yale even admitted that he had to renege on a book he wrote after 10 years of research that showed social interaction improves the health of the human immune system.
“Consider running for the school board.”
In many places, the school board has zero power anymore. Local schools often now get most of their money from their state government, which means they have to do whatever the state dictates, and which means they’re in catastrophic trouble now as so many states are getting pulverized by covid. So they can’t make policy, they don’t make budgets, they really do nothing but the vestiges of what they used to do when they were locally run. And of course along with that, no one wants to run for the office, or even vote in the election, because what’s the point?
What needs to be done is for more places, both cities and states, to start turning down money from higher levels, and plan to get back to local sovereignty, but good luck with anyone trying to do that.
“The real America still exists”
This seems like the Big Question, and I’m less sure of the answer than you are, Mark. Certainly it exists where I live, but with what practical consequences? The center of power has shifted to the center, as your opening paragraphs note. I’m less and less convinced that there’s a way of reversing that, so that local communities can actually matter again, that doesn’t involving even more things burning down than have done so already.
I agree with you completely, in your approach to community involvement. I just think that we should probably so with an eye towards building durable local institutions that will help us withstand our likely social-credit future.
“[W]e should probably so with an eye towards building durable local institutions that will help us withstand our likely social-credit future building durable local institutions that will help us withstand our likely social-credit future” — Yes. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. What do they look like?
In the spirit of your reply, and of Mark’s comment, below…
I think starting a private school in the form of home-school co-ops is a pretty good idea. If, for example, I were the resident historian at such an operation, I’d be happy to be paid in cash (as long as that’s available), beef, hunting permission, etc….
There’s one idea, that pools/leverages expertise in a way that utilizes what’s legal (homeschooling), in a way that would work for my specific locale (rural Montana).
What say the rest of you? Specific ideas? This could be a pretty cool running comment thread, though I can envision already some ideas that might be best proposed in a somewhat less public forum, cough cough.
Adam, Brian, and Aaron,
These are all good observations. It should be pointed out that the Covid situation varies from state to state and even from one community to another. Thus, the specific way through this will vary greatly and depend on local action and local knowledge. And I suppose this is the point. We’re all going to need to figure out the details of our specific places as least as a starting point.
I wish each of you the best and hope you will keep us all informed about what works and what doesn’t. There’s much to be done and, as each of you have suggested in different ways, the deck is in many ways stacked against us. Yet, it is to this task we are called.
I am on the board of a new classical school here in northern Virginia. We’re into our second year and weathering Covid. There are challenges, but there is also a demand.
Aaron is right. A brainstorming session might be helpful. Stories of successes and failures could help inspire and instruct.
I honestly don’t understand the obsession with schools. The schools in most places are just fine. The discussion about schools is dominated by urban issues, as with everything else. Big city schools are a national embarrassment.
But the state of small towns is also disgraceful, and I suspect that’s where many of the readers here are from. What if all the people talking about home schooling or starting alternative schools instead got together to figure out how to start a co-op to open a few businesses in their abandoned downtowns? In so many places, what 50 years ago were thriving downtown buildings are completely empty, if not collapsing. For a pretty small amount of money (like a fraction of what it costs to open a fast food franchise), multiple buildings could be purchased and renovated and made home to businesses. Partner with local high schools to get kids to help design and run them, to teach them about running a business, and that their hometowns aren’t placed to be fled, like society tells them, but places to cherish, where you can thrive.
No objection to any of these suggestions about downtowns, Brian. Education sprung to mind because, well, I’m a college professor by trade, and so education is often on my mind. There’s actually been a good bit of renovation in my town, in the last decade or so. What’s interesting though, is that much of the cash to do it has come from out of state.
People are focusing more on education because the state of public education in the United States is abysmal (even in the suburbs), and this crisis is only making it worse. Powerful teacher unions block competition, so many people see doing homeschool co-ops as the best alternative because it is cheaper than a private school (which can be just as bad as the public school sometimes). Some alternative schooling methods (Acton Academy) actually put a focus on entrepreneurship.
Ultimately, I think people see the Millenials and the older Gen Z generation as somewhat lost and think we must go back to the basics in order to fix what went wrong. I also think that the generations I just mentioned are the ones most interested in starting alternative education methods because they realize just how poorly they were served by the education they received.
I see no sign that suburban schools are “abysmal.” Not designed for excellence, but not the sort of catastrophes that urban schools are.
And what’s the point of a homeschool co-op when your kid at age 17 is just going to move away because “there’s nothing to do here” and will never come back home, but end up in some totally different suburb somewhere else, rootless like nearly everyone of the last few generations?
I’m not saying not to work on education, I just don’t think it’s the most important thing, as witnessed by the massive growth in homeschool and other alternatives to the public schools in the past few decades, all while small towns and cities continue to evaporate.
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