Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Walking the Walk: The Courage to Believe in Politics

Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” 

-- President Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday, the New York Times showcased the campaign of Eric Lesser, a college classmate of mine who is running for the Massachusetts State Senate in the First Hampden and Hampshire District. However, instead of viewing Eric’s efforts as emblematic of a Millennial generation inspired to serve, the Times characterized Eric as an outlier amidst a generation that has in many ways opted out of the rough and tumble life of American elective politics.

This withdrawal should concern all of us who continue to see public service (which includes politics!) as an endeavor worthy of our commitment and sacrifice, particularly because the very factors that have turned so many young people away from running for office may also turn them away from being the type of “active” citizens our nation needs to thrive.

The cynicism that now pervades American politics is all the more concerning because, for generations, belief in the American “experiment” has been something of a civic religion in a nation lacking a collective spiritualism. As historian Gordon Wood wrote,

We have even built a temple to preserve and display the great documents consecrating the founding of the American creed—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., these holy texts are enshrined in massive, bronze-framed, bulletproof, moisture-controlled glass containers that have been drained of all harmful oxygen.

And yet, despite the fact that we live in a cynical age, there can be no mistaking the fact that the American People want to believe in our experiment; want to believe that our whole is much greater than the sum of our parts; want to believe that public service is an honorable path taken by honorable women and men. As the fictionalized FDR (played by Bill Murray) tells King George VI (played by Samuel West) in Hyde Park on Hudson, “We think they see all our flaws. But, that’s not what they are looking to find when they look to us. “

Rather, as Michael Jonas points out in the current issue of Commonwealth Magazine, voters are looking for “charismatic, visionary leader[s]” to challenge our assumptions and inspire belief in the possible.

We Will Finish The Race and the
Experiment Will Live On.
Those leaders don’t emerge out of the ether. They are individuals who put actions being their words and jump in the ring, all with the courage to lose. As Eric said, “If you want to be involved in politics, at a certain point you’ve got to walk the walk.”

For those of us intent on running for office, “walking the walk” includes taking it to the campaign trial—petitioning, fundraising, door-knocking, and persuading our fellow citizens not merely that we deserve their vote, but that the vote is a power worth exercising.

But even more, it means asserting the all-too-radical belief in what David Brooks calls “the nobility of politics”—that politics is a profession worthy of our energies and that making personal sacrifices for the common good is an inherent quality of good citizenship.

149 years to the day after the death of our greatest President, and a year after bombs tore through the heart of New England’s most sacred secular holiday, let’s remember how even in America’s darkest moments, We The People have rallied around our great experiment.

As Professor Allen Guelzo wrote about the Gettysburg Address:

The genius…lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.

Today, the urgency with which we are called to belief in the democratic experiment is as strong as it has ever been.

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