Many of us puzzle. Is our earthly presence an accident? A combination of circumstances or, well, you know, transcendent? Is there a divine pathway asserting itself somewhere along the way? And if there is, shouldn’t we be looking for it? Occupying it to the best of our ability?
One of the more common phrases is “Thank God”. When tragedy strikes, and one escapes its ramifications, we often say, “Thank God” this or that person was spared. My wife thoughtfully uses this phrase. Of course, tragic circumstances are pregnant with questions.
Mostly I step back, because to engage existential questions is to leave you at least slightly disoriented. Yet, at least on a personal level, I can’t shake the questions that pile up.
Throughout my life, I have been humbled by unanswerable questions. Only occasionally have I been so certain in my conclusion that I doggedly persisted in pushing my view. Now, late in life, I find myself actively worried. Will America remain a beacon of hope or merely a piece of land and a combination of circumstances to be exploited? Will we even have the freedom to protect ourselves from exploitation? Or excess? Or will our apparent freedom be subsumed by algorithmic urgency?
Right now, many are, in the phraseology of the movie Network, “mad as hell and not going to take it any longer”. We, all of us, occupy what one commentator calls the “outrage culture”. If you like a challenge, how does this chapter in American history end?
Democracy is often messy. Its ways and means cannot be engineered by experts. And compounding the difficulty, the political class is infrequently patriotic. Winning is their end, and today, collaboration is often seen as fatal. In short, their obsession with winning causes them to subvert their potential power.
In our most fertile generations, algorithmic technology did not speed us forward. Neighbors were neighbors and not fragments of code. Churches and clubs were on the pathway to political conclusions. And mostly the churches and clubs had missions that encouraged working for the common good. Now polling organizations sub-divide us and then pushed by media tell us who we are and what we think. Essentially they write the scripts for politicians.
As humanness, and perhaps transcendence, are taken out of the equation, alienation is not only possible but probable. What happens when the culture shapers don’t care how their actions are changing America? Indeed they don’t think about it. Artificial intelligence, anyone? What are the consequences of an outrage culture accelerated by algorithms?
There are, of course, the nagging practical questions. If we are in the midst of cultural outrage, how do we get beyond it? And if neither of our political parties are majoritarian parties, is there any room for candidates who hope to appeal to a majority? Should we take a party with the unlikely name, No Labels, seriously? If there is not a serious threat to the big two, how do you get beyond their ideological hold?
And if you think we are not on a self-defeating path, consider that fewer and fewer people are even comfortable talking about public affairs. Better to talk about our favorite restaurants or places to travel.
All of this begs the question: Why would anyone want to go to Washington? At the beginning our nation’s leaders were often the result of accomplishments. And sacrifice. George Washington led the troops and then became President. Abraham Lincoln actually debated his way across Illinois, and the debating points had real content. Then there was Dwight Eisenhower; he led the troops in WWII. And again, going back to the foundation, there was Franklin and Hamilton and Adams and Madison. Patriots with brains.
Who today is in that category? Who are the patriots and thinkers? Our political parties are subsumed by grievances and if you want to measure today’s reward for collaborative work on legislation, ask Senator James Lankford to come to your civic club and report on his success in helping to resolve border problems by reaching across the aisle. He is being pilloried in his home state of Oklahoma, egged on by the Former President. He should be praised.
So here we are. We need leaders who can look into the face of outrageous dysfunction and, with a clear mind and voice, answer the “mad as hell” crowd. But be ready because the road is long and hard, and there are no guarantees.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.