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.