Katherine Tyler Scott is a Fellow of the International Leadership Association, and closer to home, a board member of Women4Change Indiana. She chairs a committee of that latter organization on which I serve, and recently she shared with me an essay she’d written for a publication of the former.

It deserves wider distribution.

The essay focused on a lessons we should take from the  war in Ukraine–especially the power of voice.

To those of us who share Katherine’s belief that we must oppose injustice and oppression “in any form, against anyone, anywhere”. she has a message: she argues that silence in such instances is unacceptable.

Many people around the world filled the streets and exercised their voices in protest of the public murder of George Floyd. It was impossible to turn away and not see what was in plain sight, to deny how the long history of dehumanization had contributed to the knee of oppression. We are called now to do the same on behalf of humanity. In America, the value of freedom is etched on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, cited in the Declaration of Independence, codified in the United States Constitution, and sustained by civic engagement. Our diversity does not discount the universal desire for freedom. This basic right to which every human being is entitled is always at risk of attack. Events, unforeseen or planned, can create major disruption and insecurity alongside crippling levels of anxiety and fear — states of emotionality in which people are willing to trade their freedom for the quick fix.

Katherine attributes the rise of autocracies around the globe to the pervasive, chronic anxiety that seems to accompany social change–a state that makes systems of any kind vulnerable, unable to cope productively with that change.

But then she notes Ukraine’s fierce resistance to Russia in defense of freedom.

The Ukrainian President and the country’s citizens have been subject to these same dynamics and forces of change yet have become an inspiring counter to a loss of the ability to cope. Why?

In large part, it is because of collective aspirations, shared core beliefs, a strong identity as a people, and an understanding of the desire to become a country where people can be free. These are powerful determinants of response, but all become more powerful when they are given voice. President Volodymyr Zelensky is that voice for his country and for millions around the world. In using it, he has galvanized people across the globe to remember what matters and what is required when civilization is under threat. A major mitigating factor to society’s chronic anxiety is the self-differentiated leader, and we are seeing it in Zelensky. He reminds us of the power of voice — one and many. We are seeing why words matter. His voice, his words, have encapsulated the universal yearning of humanity: to live, to live free, and in doing so, to have the opportunity to live a life of meaning — a life that matters and makes a difference.

This emphasis on voice really resonated with me, because voice is the one weapon possessed by ordinary Americans. Those of us without piles of money or offices of influence often despair of making a difference; I know that I look at aspects of our collective life that I  consider dangerous or forbidding and feel helpless to oppose or change them.

I lack the power to keep Indiana’s legislators from distorting the operation of democratic accountability by choosing their voters. I  cannot “reprogram” a racist MAGA movement, or keep the planet from warming, or “fix” other multiple threats to democracy, civility and the rule of law. Neither can most of the other Americans who wring their hands over these and other ominous and worrisome aspects of our collective life.

But we do have our voices, and Katherine reminds us that those voices matter—that raising them will make a difference.

The recent protests in Iran and China moved even those autocratic governments–Iran has reportedly abolished its Morality Police (although there are conflicting reports of that), and China has relaxed its draconian COVID policies. Small steps, admittedly, but evidence of the truth of Katherine’s observation.

At the very least, we need to remember that citizens’ voices–through letters and emails to legislators and other public officials, through demonstrations, through civic organizations, through lawsuits–can attest to our lack of acquiescence with an unacceptable status quo. Our voices can also encourage our fellow-citizens to raise theirs.

As Zelensky has demonstrated, words matter.


Where Do We Place The Lever?

I was going through some files recently, and came across Governing essay from last September that echoed my own growing despair over what the author called “the situation.” He’d been invited to a conference that was ostensibly about the future of the Badlands, but during the telephoned invitation, it was suggested that they would also discuss “the situation.”

That phrase triggered his inquiry.

For the rest of the evening, I tried to determine what might be meant by “the situation.” I know, I could simply have picked up the phone and asked a few questions, but I thought it was an interesting exercise. It’s easy enough to get started. America seems to be disintegrating. Our national political system seems to be paralyzed. There is a great deal of anger and distrust awash in the land. Each of the two main tribes (the Right and the Left) declares that the other one is a clear and present danger to the future of civilization. Some tens of millions of people continue to argue, and perhaps believe, that the 2020 election was stolen. We cannot even agree on basic public health measures in the face of the worst global pandemic in more than 100 years.

If–as he assumed–these and other crises we face are what was meant by “the situation,” what could be accomplished in that discussion? As he noted, it’s a lot easier to diagnose “the situation” than to identify a prescription.

More civility? A great and inspiring leader with the idealism of Barack Obama and the oomph of Theodore Roosevelt? Some self-restraint by the 24-7 cable media? A return to the Fairness Doctrine? I can hear one participant saying we’d be just fine if we could only get back to the intentions of the Founding Fathers; and another urging the progressives to terminate the filibuster and pass rafts of reform legislation along the lines of the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. One person would argue that we must abolish the Electoral College, another that we should pack the Supreme Court.

The fact that his imagined conversation was self-evidently inadequate to the challenge mirrors much of the conversation on this blog: there’s general agreement that America’s society is in crisis and its governance is in thrall to a minority composed of frightened, uninformed  and frequently deranged citizens–but there is no such agreement when it comes to the really important question: what must we do?

The author illustrated the dilemma by quoting Archimedes, who said, “show me where to put the lever and I will move the world.” The question, as he noted, is: where do we put the lever?

After citing research showing that that 43 million Americans (about one in nine) are illiterate, he makes a point that I endlessly repeat:

If American citizens don’t know the difference between an impeachment and an impeachment trial, if they don’t know the difference between an emolument and an embolism, if they don’t understand the constitutional function of the Supreme Court, if they think Obamacare is socialism but Medicare a sacred American right, how can we expect to keep the republic alive? In a letter to Charles Yancey in 1816, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.”

Ignorance, of course, isn’t the only threat to democracy and stability. The vast and growing divide between the rich and the rest is a clear danger. The author writes that the inability of our government to address climate change is another–and he wrote this essay before the Supreme Court further hobbled government’s ability to do so. He acknowledges the ongoing legacy of slavery, and the racism that is an all-too-obvious motivation of the MAGA crowds. He gives a nod to Eisenhower”s warning about the dangers of an unrestrained military-industrial complex.

Unsurprisingly, the author of the essay doesn’t answer his own question. Instead, he argues (feebly) for a “spiritual renaissance.” I think the reason I haven’t previously written about this particular essay is my instinctive aversion to that cop-out. This often-encountered longing for a “renaissance” rests on a very dubious belief that Americans were once more “spiritual”–a belief uncomfortably close to the “we were once a Christian nation” fantasy. In any event, he is silent on the rather significant question of how the desired increase in spirituality is to be obtained.

So here we are–like doctors who can describe the disease but have no magic potion with which to treat it. We’re left with what is, admittedly, a very good question: where do we put Archimedes’ lever?

It’s a question that suggests another: are our problems far too numerous for a lever even to work?


Covid Covid Covid…

Hopes are high that we will see a  COVID-19 vaccine soon. But it will be a long time before America recovers from the Trump administration’s monumental mismanagement of the pandemic, and its efforts to evade responsibility for that mismanagement.

Those efforts included Trump’s attacks on the news media leading up to the election and his bizarre (and patently unconstitutional) insistence that there should be a law to keep the media from focusing on the COVID pandemic.

It is certainly true that stories about the pandemic have occupied significant space in the national conversation, but despite general condemnation of the administration’s lack of leadership, I’ve seen few detailed explanations of the mechanics of that mismanagement.

It can be hard to help the public understand how obscure bureaucratic decisions have undermined the national response. One of the many such moves was described by Heather Cox Richardson in one of her Letters from an American:

The administration’s changes to the reporting system for coronavirus have hampered our ability to combat it. In July, the administration shifted the way hospital data is collected, taking the project away from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and giving it to a private contractor. CDC experts no longer check and analyze the data. Information on hospitalizations is no longer publicly available, so states cannot see what is happening elsewhere. This hides the picture of what is happening nationally, making it impossible for public health officials to plan for spikes.

Multiply this sort of thing by dozens if not hundreds of difficult-to-detect decisions, and then add the utter lack of visible national leadership, the administration’s repeated assertions that a national–nay, international–pandemic was somehow a state-level problem that they couldn’t be bothered addressing, and you have…Covid, Covid, Covid, and thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Many of those deaths could have been avoided, had Trump just not turned mask-wearing into a political litmus test.

And of course, there were the dangerous quack “cures” Trump promoted. Bleach. Hydroxychloroquine.

The White House decision to set aside the mandatory safety controls put in place by the Food and Drug Administration fueled one of the most disputed initiatives in the administration’s response to the pandemic: the distribution of millions of ineffective, potentially dangerous pills from a federally controlled cache of drugs called the Strategic National Stockpile.

The House of Representatives recently issued a blistering report on the administrative failures involved, labeling them “among the worst failures of leadership in American history” and an “American fiasco.”

The report, by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis, says the administration has consistently misled the country about the severity of the pandemic and that its lack of a national plan has hampered the ability to track, test for, treat and contain the virus. Efforts to provide economic support to Americans have been stymied by a lack of safeguards and policies that favored corporations over small business owners and failed to ensure that workers kept their jobs, the report says.

“President Trump’s decision to mislead the public about the severity of the crisis, his failure to listen to scientists about how to keep Americans healthy, and his refusal to implement a coordinated national plan to stop the coronavirus have all contributed to devastating results: more than 227,000 Americans dead, more than 8.8 million Americans infected, and a dangerous virus that continues to spread out of control nine months after it reached our nation’s shores,” the report’s introduction reads.

If we have learned anything over the past four horrible years, it is that national leadership matters. Expertise matters. Experience in and understanding of the government you are elected to administer matters. And needless to say, character, honesty, mental health and intellectual capacity matter.

That said, on November 4th, we learned that to a shocking number of Americans, none of those things matter as much as their animus to minorities and their desire to “own the libs.”

And as for their fury over the duty to don a mask to protect others–well, I couldn’t say it better than this… 


Promises, Promises….

I post a fair amount about political hypocrisy: “family values” Evangelicals who love Trump, “fiscal conservatives” who are okay with his massive deficits, etc.  But Tuesday’s local elections were a reminder that hypocrisy and cant aren’t just national phenomena.

Indiana was one of the states that held elections this year for municipal offices. In central Indiana, Democrats had some notable first-time victories, including the election of a mayor and at least three councilors in suburbs of Indianapolis that have been reliably red for as long as I can remember. (And I’m old.) But I want to focus on the more predictable results of the mayor’s race in Indianapolis proper—which, like all urban areas with populations of over 500,000 these days, is currently bright blue—where the incumbent, Joe Hogsett, won re-election by a nearly 50-point margin.

I didn’t attend Hogsett’s election-nght party, but friends who were there reported that the Mayor’s victory speech included some interesting (and appropriately snarky) comments.

In particular, after thanking his Republican opponent, Jim Merritt, a sitting State Senator, Hogsett “welcomed” his return to the Indiana Legislature,  where, he said, Senator Merritt would have the opportunity to champion so many of the issues he raised during his mayoral campaign: additional resources for Indianapolis public safety and improved infrastructure, support for LGBTQ rights, and greater support for Marion County’s African American community – things that Senator Merritt has not exactly championed (or  supported) during his 30 years in the legislature.

(To the extent we still have media watchdogs, I certainly hope they will keep a watchful eye on Senator Merritt’s efforts to legislate improvements on the issues he suddenly discovered were important during his mayoral campaign.)

Of course, Merritt isn’t the only candidate who should be held accountable. It will be equally interesting to see what Hogsett does with his impressive win, which can rightly be considered a mandate. He will also have an expanded majority—indeed, a 20-5 super-majority—on  Indianapolis’ City-County Council.

How will he use this expanded authority?

One of my more cynical friends predicts that—based on the Mayor’s extremely timid approach to governing thus far—Hogsett will take his 71% victory as a “mandate to continue doing not much of anything.”

Maybe. But hope springs eternal….

Our city, like so many others, faces a number of critical issues. Those issues will demand focused, thoughtful initiatives from the Mayor’s office: improving inadequate and decaying infrastructure; working with the State DOT to avoid further exacerbating the 50-year-old mistake of running an interstate highway through downtown residential districts; continuing to revitalize in-city neighborhoods while avoiding the pitfalls of gentrification; supporting the extension of public transportation; the continuing effort to improve public safety; and so many more.

The Mayor now has an electoral mandate and a supermajority on the Council. It will be interesting to see how he chooses to spend that political capital.

I’m hoping for signs of bolder leadership and vision in his second term, and I’ve made a wager with my cynical friend, whose prediction is that Mayor Hogsett will “boldly middle-manage the status quo” in ways that keep Indianapolis a reasonably well-functioning but ultimately undistinguished city.

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, all eyes now turn to Washington and 2020.


Analog Candidates For A Digital Age

Let me begin with an admission: I am old. The same age as Bernie Sanders, actually, and just a couple of years older than Joe Biden. I know firsthand that age bestows a number of benefits along with the gray hair and sagging skin: more tolerance for the foibles of others, a broader context within which to analyze thorny issues, greater appreciation for the complexities of the world.

When we are determining which candidate the Democrats should nominate to occupy the Oval Office, however, those benefits must be weighed against some undeniable negatives.

First and foremost is political reality. If a Democrat wins the 2020 election, he or she needs to be seen as a possible– or likely– two-term President. Thanks to Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate, we have ample evidence that the GOP will do everything in its power to run the clock out on a President in his last–or only–term. (Ask Merrick Garland if you don’t believe me–or look at the overall pathetic performance of Congress in Obama’s last term.) It’s much, much harder to pursue that strategy with someone who is potentially a two-term President.

Someone who assumes office at the age of 78 or 80 is not a two-termer.

Second, the world into which someone was socialized matters. A lot. The reality we occupy growing up shapes us in ways we only dimly recognize. Joe Biden’s hugging and physical demonstrativeness is just one example; I love Biden, and I recognize his behavior as fairly typical of affectionate men of his and my generation. We all grow up unthinkingly accepting the social norms of the world we were born into as “the way it is,” making it very difficult to realize that “the way it is” isn’t anymore.

As a consequence, my generation has difficulty fully understanding and adapting to a world that is profoundly different from the world of our youth, not just because of  generational social change, but because of the way those changes have been magnified and their speed accelerated by the Internet, social media and technology generally.

What younger folks find intuitive is anything but for those of us who grew up with landlines attached to the wall, shelves of encyclopedias for information, and service station attendants who pumped the gas and cleaned our windshields. I’m an example: I am not the Luddite some of my age cohort are–I use an iPhone and laptop, I read on a Kindle, and I review research studies about the sometimes convoluted ways in which technology and social media are constantly changing social norms–but none of this comes easily or naturally, as it so clearly does to my students and grandchildren.

Nor does my understanding go very deep; like most of my generation, I rely on younger people if I need to go beyond superficial knowledge of how it all works.

If Russian bots are exacerbating America’s tribal divisions, those dealing with the problem need to understand what bots are, what they do and how they are deployed. If virtual currencies like Bitcoin are threatening to destabilize global monetary systems, they need to understand how those currencies work, how they are generated and why they have value. And that’s just two examples.

Thirdly, and much as I hate to admit it, age takes an inexorable physical and mental toll. I’m a pretty high energy person, and I am blessed with excellent health. But there is absolutely no way that I could discharge even the purely physical requirements of a job like the Presidency. (My theory is that Trump’s well-documented aversion to actually doing any work is partly due to his age and poor physical condition.) And numerous studies definitively show that on nearly every scale of intellectual capacity, people over 70 have less flexibility and less to offer than younger generations. 

There comes a time when we older folks need to yield power to the next generation. We can still offer our hard-earned wisdom, and we can still play an important advisory role. But existential threats like climate change need to be addressed by those who will live with its effects; racism, sexism and other bigotries can best be dealt with by people who have grown up seeing mothers who are doctors, lawyers and CEOs, and interacting with friends and classmates of many races, religions and sexual identities.

America owes huge debts to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. We are safer thanks to Biden’s wisdom on foreign policy and exceptional service in the Senate and as Vice-President. Sanders’ 2016 campaign almost single-handedly demonstrated the hollowness of Democrat’s “Republican-lite” policies. His is no longer a lone voice–virtually every Democratic Presidential candidate in 2020 has adopted his progressive perspectives on healthcare and economic fairness.

That said, it’s time for the party’s elders to step back and give day-to-day management of government to a new generation. Fortunately, the Democratic Party–unlike the GOP– has an exceptional young bench.

To coin a phrase: it’s time for a (generational) change.