We are living at an extraordinary moment in American history.
Our country—a work in progress in the best of times—is struggling to define itself. What does America stand for? What does it mean to be an American? How should their government interact with ordinary Americans? Are taxes killing the working and middle classes? Are the rich to blame for all our problems? Is everyone paying a fair share of the burden? How do we create a more just society? How large a role should citizens play in determining public policy?
It’s a presidential election year, and the candidates are notable as much for their flaws as their achievements. One promises to change an establishment she’s helped lead for more than thirty years. The other promises to change an establishment that wants no part of him. Are the choices really the status quo or chaos? Or is the excessive media focus on ultimately trivial mistakes and “gotcha” moments warping our perceptions?
At the local level, we find far too many candidates running unopposed, not because they are extraordinary public servants, but because they have access to the obscene amounts of money required to run for public office, money that is too often donated by outside interests that don’t know or care about local issues but do know and care about who’s in position to influence government spending and no-bid contracts.
Citizens are more than disengaged from civic involvement. They are openly alienated and apathetic. No matter what choice is made at the ballot box, the system never changes. Greed and corruption have all but destroyed our political system and our communities. Venal, self-serving politicians and their political gurus have so sliced and diced the electorate into special interest groups that it’s no longer possible to speak of a common good. The values Americans used to share have largely disappeared.
It’s clear that a disgusted citizenry is not merely demanding change, but determined to get it, willing to work for it, beginning to organize to make it a reality. This time, the ordinary people who pay the bills won’t agree to remain silent.
It probably won’t happen with this election cycle, although there will be some changes. The next election—in Chicago, that’s only two years away—will produce more. Citizens are demanding term limits for officeholders, a voice in spending, a shift in our priorities, and massive change in public policies that produce no appreciable benefit for ordinary folks. They want an end to lying politicians who cook the books and draw the maps that keep them in power, all the while looking out for themselves first.
Change is coming. You can sense it. You can feel it. The next time you attend a meeting called by a local officeholder who replies in generalities to precisely-worded questions, look around at the faces of the audience. Where once there was resignation, there is now anger, and just beyond that, an awakening—and a convert—to the cause of citizen empowerment.
Change is scary, but it’s also exciting. We aren’t quite sure what’s coming, but we are certain that what we’ve had is no longer what we want. It will take time, but the costs of doing nothing are no longer acceptable. The people must seize this moment, not wait for the next one. Too much is at stake.
It’s an extraordinary time to be a part of this great American experiment in self-government.