E Pluribus Unum: The Radical Center Must Rise

Unity does not require agreement in all things. That is impossible. Unity is strongest, in fact, when it is diverse. This is the hard work of democracy.

In the constant upheaval that is the Trump presidency and our current political environment I fear we are rapidly losing sight of a core foundation that keeps our nation and our culture functioning. Trump’s firing of James Comey, and the ensuing conversations and coverage have thrown this into sharp relief.

Some say we’ve long since abandoned any shared foundations.

My friends on the cultural right argue that our culture is now fully owned and operated by secular humanists, atheists and progressives and therefore shared foundations are impossible. My friends on the political right argue that Obama and progressives did so much damage to the institutions and our standing in the world and that progressive governing philosophy is so wrong that shared foundations are impossible.

My friends on the cultural left often come from such condescension toward any opposing ideas that challenge their “orthodoxy” while arguing that any traditional values must be bigoted so there cannot possibly be shared foundations. My friends on the political left are so obsessed with #TheResistance and further left-trending progressive policies that unless and until Trump is ousted or Congress #flipped, they see no hope for any shared foundations, even if they are interested in finding common ground.

All is war. All is polarization. All is defined in terms of friends and enemies. Enemies are meant to be defeated. That is their only purpose unless you’re a war-monger, in which case they also serve as a handy profit-generator.

I reject all of this.

Of course people way smarter than me have made these cases and I accept that there are many who truly feel there is no hope for shared foundations in our governing going forward. Their actions indicate they believe their best course of action is to fight for their tribe and gain as much territory as possible.

But it is this sort of tribal thinking that we have seen wreck civilizations throughout history. The great American experiment is unique in so many ways but one of the most unique attributes is this voluntary setting aside of certain tribal priorities and desires for a shared greater good.  We dare not dismiss these strong tribal divisions. They are deepening, not healing.

But I submit that the same simple foundation that birthed our nation, that barely, but ultimately, held us together through the Civil War, that drew us together in the face of clear evil in World War II and have allowed us to endure through so much more – I contend that this foundation remains in place. It’s just getting shouted out and crowded out by a deafening cacophony of warring voices.

E Pluribus Unum.

This shared foundation has been our motto from the earliest days. It’s an incredibly unique goal for governing, rarely successful throughout human history. It’s built around the simple truth that there is strength in unity, so we should seek it. Unity does not require agreement in all things. That is impossible. Unity is strongest, in fact, when it is diverse. Real unity is a setting aside of some disagreements and distinctions to rally around a central vision. This is the hard work of democracy.

A political renaissance is brewing as a new center is quietly but certainly emerging. Not a squishy middle full of “moderates” and “problem solvers.” That will never have the needed strength to endure and enact real change. No, we need the messy, difficult and ultimately much stronger unity found when we can both fight for what we believe in and have the wisdom and humility to know when to lay down our tribal priorities for the greater good – for the good of the whole and not only ourselves.

Out of many, one. Although diverse, united.

So to our elected officials I say: sit down together – together – and find our shared values, then work on those first. Right now, you’re starting with the pluribus. Start with the unum. But don’t you dare give up your principles. You can do both. It’s hard. But it’s your job. Do it.

To those with whom I disagree politically I say: Let’s talk. I enjoy coffee, beer and water so surely we can start over one of those three. I want to hear your point of view. I want you to listen to mine. We won’t agree on everything. That’s ok. I want to find common ground and work on those things first.

To my fellow political professionals I say: Stop being war-mongers. Everyone else is not your enemy and your tactics are not uniting, they are dividing. We can be a part of the problem or the solution. Don’t stop fighting for what you believe in, just stop framing everything as war. The Art of War should not be the consultant’s handbook anymore.

To all my fellow Americans I say: Don’t give up on the great American Experiment. It would be easiest to stay in our comfortable tribal villages with people who will reinforce and protect us. That will not make us stronger as a nation. We must re-engage in the hard work of democracy.

Revolution and renaissance need not come only from the fringes. The radical center is rising. E Pluribus Unum.

 

The System is Rigged. This is what I’m doing about it.

The System is Rigged. This is what I’m doing about it.

When Evan McMullin called me on a hot summer day last year and said he wanted to run for President, I had no idea what was ahead. What I quickly learned was that Evan is a man who cares deeply about our country, has sacrificed greatly to protect it and was ready to stand up against two very flawed candidates, no matter the cost. No one else was willing to do something that bold and courageous about the mess we faced.

There were tons of uncertainties. One thing I didn’t know was if it would have any lasting impact or even, really, why it mattered. I knew it did, somehow – but I wasn’t sure how.

What we showed America, and many of the country’s most powerful and skeptical people, was that a truly normal American with very little financial means could make a very large impact in a very short time with almost no resources. What Evan did was truly incredible. Way more incredible than Trump’s win, I’d argue. And we did it with a message of unity, liberty, truth, and freedom – even as so many pushed back against us.

Evan’s run restored hope for so many and gave so many a reason to get excited and engaged in the 2016 election and now, to keep fighting for good. It also proved that our system, while deeply flawed, is indeed the greatest idea in governance that history has ever seen.

That system is under threat. Not by Donald Trump, though. He’s a symptom. A weather event in a much larger climate pattern.

The problem is that the system is rigged.

 

I’ve spent the last three months reflecting, listening, watching, reading and generally trying to figure out what the heck is going on in the world. I’ve talked to some of the smartest people in the country. Some of the most experienced. Some of the most passionate and caring. Some of the richest. Some of the angriest. From all sides of the political debate. And while many have theories and ideas about the various problems and challenges, I’ve actually found a surprising clarity among them.

First, some context. I recently heard a talk by Greg Thompson of Thriving Cities and the University of Virginia in which he reminded the audience, in these challenging times, to differentiate between what he called “the climate and the weather.” It was a brilliant, simple and transformational thought for me.

Trump is a weather event. The rigged system is the climate, along with the global economic changes, the rise of populism and nationalism and the meteoric pace of technological change. An election year like 2016 is what you get when the climate is so volatile and unstable. It produces nasty, destructive storms with names like Hillary and Donald.

Now, to the rigging. What most of us mean when we say the system is rigged is this:

Those with power and money have ensured they can keep their power and money by creating a system, over decades, that benefits them at the expense of “regular people.”

There are very few people who disagree with this either in the extensive research done on the topic or in everyday conversation. Try it. Ask this question to anyone: Do you think the “system” in America is rigged to favor the rich and powerful?

The specific ways the system is rigged are above my pay grade but you can read smarter people on the topic. While there are a number of ways the system is rigged, there is surprising uniformity in the basic conclusions, even from divergent points of view. This is incredibly important because it confirms that not only do we agree directionally on the problem, but the problem is real and relatively clearly defined.

I believe there are three things that need to happen to tackle this problem.

  • Turn the knob, ever so slightly, on taxes for the wealthy. (credit to Warren Buffett, Joe Ritchie and many more)
  • Make modest but vital regulatory and ballot access reforms to allow independent candidates for office to compete with the two parties. (credit to Jackie Salit, Greg Orman, Nick Troiano, Peter Ackerman and many more)
  • Love one another (credit to Jesus, and many more)

Just these three things. The three most revolutionary things we could do to un-rig the system and reset our amazing American experiment. You’re probably saying I’m naïve or idealistic. I’m neither. Super-smart and principled people agree with me on the tax issue and I’ve personally lived through the barriers to independent candidates having spent most of 2016 trying to compete with a truly independent presidential candidate in Evan McMullin.Trust me – it’s pretty freaking hard.

What about this third thing – loving each other? “Now you’ve really gone squishy on us, Joel,” you may say. But loving another person, even when you don’t agree and especially when they’re your enemy, is probably the single most revolutionary thing that’s ever been done in history.

Our very natural survival instincts are opposed to loving one another. Whether you think we’ve evolved over millions of years or were created by a sovereign God, it’s pretty hard to argue these days that “people are inherently good and looking out for each other.” We are basically all self-interested and always trying to get ours. This is why love is so radical.

Real love for another person says, “I will set aside my agenda to help you achieve yours. I will allow myself to be inconvenienced so that you can be more comfortable. I will give up my privilege to serve you.” These are radical thoughts in an era of near total self-absorption where we have all the tools necessary to build our own reality through social media and the internet.

So what will I do about the rigged system? A lot, I hope. But I’m starting with love. See you in the trenches.

Donald Trump is a Disruptor and I’m Loving It?

On Inauguration Day, Donald Trump will cement perhaps the most incredible disruption of a political system in history. Entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley types are fond of talking about disruptors. They even take on their own mythological status sometimes as stories are told in whispers and awe of how some guy came up with an idea, bucked the system and made millions. Uber, e-cigarettes, and the mythological creature known as Steve Jobs are a few of the well-known examples.

Let me be clear, I don’t approve of just about anything Donald Trump does or says. But those in hotspots of disruption in our country like Silicon Valley, Austin, Salt Lake and Archer, Florida (that’s where I live) actually do see the opportunities that are arising out of this time.  We realize that the relative chaos and feather-shedding in so many old, stodgy institutions opens up space for new conversations about what is really working and what isn’t. Conversations about what is worth preserving and fighting for and what should be allowed to die.

I’ve personally been involved in conversations with people I never would have talked to before this year – not because I didn’t like them or wouldn’t work with them – but because nothing has ever forced our paths to cross. Of course this journey started, for me, in seeking an independent presidential candidate alongside Bill Kristol, Rick Wilson, John Kingston and many others, punctuated by the amazing run of Evan McMullin and Mindy Finn that I am so proud to have served. But then there have been these amazing people like Greg Orman, Jackie Salit, Nick Troiano, Sho Baraka, Justin Giboney, Angel Maldonado and so many more who are all working, in their ways, to advance the common good for our country. Even better than that, we are working hard to find common ground even though we may not have seen it before. This is truly valuable and exciting. Stay tuned for lots more of this kind of activity.

Now, I have to point out that I don’t believe Trump actually is a disruptor in the ways that are often seen as so wonderful, ultimately, by so many. Why? True disruption blows up a tried and true (and often stodgy and uncompetitive) product or market precisely because it offers a better alternative that consumers were wanting for a long time. There’s the rub. I don’t believe that what Donald Trump is offering is a better alternative.

Did consumers want him? Well, sort of. Few of us would argue that our broken political system didn’t need a good old fashioned disruption. But what we’re seeing play out as the Trump-ifying of American politics simply isn’t making things better, and I don’t believe it will make America great again.  Sure, some things will get disrupted that need disrupting. Some policies, I hope, that the Trump administration ushers in, will indeed be good for the country and the good of many. But it’s a poison pill.

However, instead of dampening my spirits or holding me back, this disruption is exciting me. Some of history’s most incredible movements and innovations have been born in times of extreme uncertainty and even unrest. Particularly among people of deep principle, these kinds of times offer sharp clarity of mission and provide opportunities to build bridges.

This year has disrupted my life in almost every way. It has forced me out of old ways – stodgy and unproductive ways, many of them – and is birthing new relationships and opening my eyes to blind spots I’ve had for a long time. It is awakening in me a renewed sense of calling and purpose, and a desire to work together with a diverse group of Americans for the common good.  And that’s a disruption I’m glad to endure.