Feeling whiplashed by the midterm elections? No wonder: We’ve literally been through the ringer—360 degrees of change in two very short years.
In 2008 Democrats voted, by wide margin, for the “change” candidate, Barack Obama. Truth be told, Mr. Obama was none too specific about what kind of change he was advocating, but we were desperate for anything-but-Bush, a 180-degree turn away from, and Mr. Obama, who also sounded the siren call of hope, seemed the ideal pilot. Then, in the midterms just concluded, Republicans, being nothing but savvy, picked up the non-specific “change” banner and voters, beaten down and made fearful by an awful economy President Obama hasn’t yet corrected, spun around and pressed—yet again—the lever marked Reverse.
Thus the feeling of whiplash, of the most potent kind—ideological—wild swings of the pendulum between (depending on your party affiliation) alien planet and home territory. Right now Democrats feel as if on an alien planet; Republicans, in home territory.
But there is real danger in these too-fast swings between extremes. Apart from the spectacle of a punch-drunk behemoth we’re presenting to the world, not to mention our own pendulum-induced nausea, there is real danger of serious damage to the nation’s fabric, even disintegration. Since the midterms I have heard Democrats and Republicans alike voice some version of, “The country cannot go on like this,” emphasis on “cannot.”
To achieve equilibrium, best if we start specifying exactly what kind of change it is that we not only want but, more urgently, need.
This exercise won’t be a welcome; post-9/11 life in the U.S. has been exhausting and taken its toll. But, with two-thirds of the American public agreeing that America is in decline, and with the 2012 presidential elections due to start soon (dismaying prospect!), the exercise has to be taken up, because America must—here’s that word again—change course.
Following are some suggested frames for that discussion of change. Readers no doubt will have their own ideas.
“Responsible change”: This is change that is “mature, serious, accountable, fair; distinguishing right from wrong” (I quote myself in ’08, writing about Candidate Obama’s non-specific call for change). With this frame, Republicans can be pressed on the contradiction, and irresponsibility, of insisting on tax cuts for the rich while also insisting on deficit- and debt-reduction. Democrats can likewise be pressed for greater responsibility.
“Change that can save us”: Again, I quote myself, from my last blogpost, “Is this a culture that wants to save itself?” This frame provides a distancing lens through which we, Democrats and Republicans working in alliance, can visualize ourselves as actors on a stage, rescuing ourselves and our great American experiment.
“Change that’s in one’s best interest”: A friend in TV news emailed this post-election analysis: “A deep vein of fear runs through this body politic. Voters are exhausted and confused by the relentless stream of overwhelming problems, problems so deep and complex they defy understanding. Given this, how can people possibly offer or recognize solutions? They grab onto familiar concepts of what they think America should be (and never has been) and end up voting against their own best interests.” This frame shines a light on how fear and complexity can blind the voter.
“Change that’s in the national interest”: Apart from truly enlightened self-interest, there is also the national interest, the commonweal. Americans tend to focus on their rights as individuals, less so on their responsibilities to the nation; likewise, corporations focus on their profits, often (always?) at the expense of the commonweal. Expanding this narrow focus to the larger sphere yields change benefiting all. Case in immediate, all-encompassing point: the economic crisis, a boat by which, at the end of the day, we all survive or go down. (Wall Street: please note and mind the reckless risk-taking.)
“Change the Greatest Generation would pursue”: Maybe you have to be a boomer like me with parents from the World War II generation to offer this frame. But, in terms of policy, the Greatest Generation rarely put a foot wrong, from dealing with the Great Depression, to prosecuting a life-or-death world war, to laying the postwar foundations for world leadership and historic prosperity. Grit and bedrock ideals drove this generation; we would profit by collectively taking their cue.
…and leading the discussion of redefined, more specific change (let’s hope): Barack Obama, the Statesman.
If we do not achieve equilibrium, if we continue the wild extremes of the pendulum, the chief beneficiaries are…extremist politicians, like Sarah Palin, who with her middle-school taunt—”How’s that hopey-changey thing going for ya?”—is a change way too far.
Let’s muscle up the hope and get specific about change—now.
Carla Seaquist is author of “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character,” a collection of op-eds, essays, and dialogues. Also a playwright, she is at work on a play titled “Prodigal” (www.carlaseaquist.com).