The 2016 presidential election has left a strong impression of the United States as a fractured, gloomy nation. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say neither major party represents them, according to the latest American Values Survey, while 74 percent are pessimistic about the country’s direction – up from 57 percent just four years ago.
Nearly three-fourths say the country is either stagnating or falling behind, according to a Time magazine poll. Even among young adults under 30, more than half are fearful for the future, according to a Harvard University poll.
This mood of pessimism, says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, requires that the winners of the election listen to the views of people who think differently from them. “It is one thing to say that ‘we are going to have a debate and you lost.’ It is another thing to say that ‘it is not even proper to express your concerns, your concerns that are so far out of my understanding.’ ... That is a recipe for social division.”
Listening, however, is not just learning a bit more about what you oppose and then trying to split the difference in a transactional deal. It can also mean understanding how Americans are turning their disappointment with politics into new forms of civic activity. If they are not finding the social goods they seek through elections, they must be looking for them elsewhere. Organized movements like the tea party or Black Lives Matter don’t fade away if they lose an election. They often morph into affirmative and local action.
We have seen these alternative means of civic engagement show up on the margins of politics. New communities have formed, often on the internet, around local food, alternative energy, home-schooling, or work sharing. Americans don’t simply stew in political resentment. They create new paths, outside official democracy, to find people of similar interests and values. The Digital Age has accelerated this trend to redefine what is public.
These alternative civic bonds do not merely fill the gaps of government services. They can create whole new communities, cutting across the traditional political divisions. As Barack Obama said in 2008, Americans “must always believe that they can write their own destiny.”
These are acts of love, not hate. They are based on hope, not gloom. The 2016 election winners do indeed have work to do in listening to the currents of American society that are moving ahead on their own. A good leader tries to run ahead of the people in the direction they are going.