This is an opinion piece by Michael Slaby, creator of The Progress Papers.
Our story, America’s story, began with a radical declaration of collective rebellion and ambition. Even before being enshrined as the opening word of our Constitution, “we” was the starting point for every conversation, every impulse, every ambition — a statement of collective defiance. That foundational expression of unity — unprecedented for its time — became the opening declaration of our national identity: We the people.
We, Americans, claimed freedom: self-determination against tyranny, corruption, monopoly, and monarchy. We created a government of servants of and to the people to ensure our collective liberty — inspired by duty and sacrifice and the ironclad conviction that we could only stand against the inertia of history together. And, while we also celebrate and protect individual liberty, our nation is predicated on this collective striving — our success is our success.
We have lost this fundamental idea. While our original implementation was flawed by lack of inclusion and the glaring injustice of slavery, even the core idea of a shared community has been shattered, buried by unproductive partisanism and uncertainty about our future that has resulted in a widespread sense of anxiety and distrust in our political institutions and politicians.
This anxiety we feel is a form of tyranny, a collective loss of liberty just as sure as autocracy. And our collective anxiety about our place in the future, about uncertain opportunity for our families, about the uneven costs of innovation, drives the rise of populism, nationalism, the epidemic of self-medication, and the curse of us-versus-them otherness that fragments our collective purpose.
"Reclaiming our democracy requires an immediate and forceful intervention: reclaiming the earnestness of public service."
We know these stories: we see them and feel them everyday. The opioid crisis. Anti-immigrant sentiment. Anti-globalist isolationism. Pervasive racism and misogyny. We must remind ourselves of our original inspiration, and we need leaders who spur our confidence and renew our faith when the pace of change leaves us feeling like the ground is moving beneath our feet. We crave lives of dignity, ideals that matter, and beliefs that animate our hearts. We hear from the callous and careless that these things don’t matter, that ideas like these are childish, that somehow we’ve outgrown them. Denigrating the things that inspire us most makes us cynical and pliable, makes us easy to manipulate and manage, makes us willing to swallow unpalatable truths in the form of compromise and calculation.
Reclaiming our democracy requires an immediate and forceful intervention: reclaiming the earnestness of public service; re-embracing the essential unity of America; reconnecting our belief in personal progress and our personal potential to policies and systems that enable and ensure collective progress; and ensuring that those systems follow through on their intent to ensure safety, justice, and opportunity for everyone.
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This fundamental belief in our individual goodness and potential must be translated to our belief in each other, our community, and our country. We must be more ambitious right now about our collective path forward:
Embrace Collective Success
“Personal responsibility” has been hijacked as a justification for culling social programs and undermining our ability to support each other. It is predicated on the ultimate self-reliance lie — the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story. We all need help, but we don’t all get it from the same places. We should leave no one behind — we’re too good and too kind for that. Accepting personal responsibility means taking care of our communities, not looking out for ourselves. It means participating in not just our own personal lives but also showing up for the people around us.
Re-engage in Civic Life
Our political leaders have let us down, and we must rely on ourselves to renew our belief in the system. We are the biggest actor in our political system, so if we change, the system changes. All politics is personal — local was always a placeholder, the best approximation of what was most important to us.
"We don’t all have to become activists, but we do all need to embrace our role in the world around us."
We must each engage on the things that matter most to us, and our leaders must listen and respond to us in ways that suggest they know and care about us personally. Government is only one of the tools we use to create the life we want for ourselves and our country, and for our leaders to have any chance of living up to what we need from them, we must believe that this tool is valuable.
Reclaim the Process
Traditional institutions are necessary to grasp the levers of power and to execute our ideas whether we like it or not. The reorganization of these institutions is going to require us to work inside these systems in addition to disrupting and challenging them from the outside. The incentives in the process must be realigned to drive progress and participation for everyone and from everyone. Progress and governing are the purpose of politics, not power. We must demand, and our leaders must embrace, progress over power.
The American story is not an “us versus them” protest polemic; that false narrative just reinforces our desire to punish someone for what’s not working. America is about being for progress for everyone everywhere. It’s about a commitment to equality that means an equal say in the values and path of our country for all citizens. A healthy government is equally accountable to everyone it represents, not just those who can afford access. Justice must exist for everyone in our society in practice, not just in theory, or we all suffer the injustice of a sense that the rule of law is arbitrary. It’s about extending this commitment to justice and equality to people in other countries through trade and diplomacy. And it means that each of us engage in our communities — local, faith, issue, online, offline, wherever on whatever — in ways that demonstrate our awareness and commitment to each other.
"We are the biggest actor in our political system, so if we change, the system changes."
We don’t all have to become activists, but we do all need to embrace our role in the world around us. Participation is not optional. We are either complicit in the continued erosion of faith or participants in the rebuilding of it — there is no opting out.
If we choose to re-engage with our original story about overcoming tyranny together, about creating a community that reflects our desire to embrace equality and opportunity for everyone , we can reclaim, re-energize, and rebuild a politics and government that serves us. We know we are capable of more, and we can remake our systems to prove it, to ensure it, and to elevate everyone.
As long as we allow winning, rather than progress, to define politics, we will continue to not only feel lost but actually be lost. We must demand and drive an unrelenting cultural shift in what we expect from politics, leadership, and government, and this is our beginning. The Progress Papers are a collection of voices exploring what matters most to us in new terms to help start a new conversation about politics in our culture that can reform the culture of our politics. Let us begin together.