Can America Be A Welcoming Country Again?

The Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan. (Credit: EAS ART/Flickr)

A successful man in his early 40’s, working in an industry he loves, Faisal Siddiqui is the first to tell you that he’s a lucky man. He has a perennially sunny outlook on the world – it takes a serious effort to put him in a bad mood. Blessed with a wife he loves and three daughters who dote on him when he comes home from twelve-hour days, Faisal is none-the-less passionate about his work, moving from hospital to hospital as a CEO who specializes in difficult turnaround cases.

He’s a voracious reader, consuming as much material as he can make time for, often stacking up books focused on whatever esoteric business problem he’s currently puzzling out. A believer in fitness to focus the mind, Faisal is an avid racquet sports player and hits the soccer pitch too, striving to out-run his opponents – both sports with intense cardio demands.

Although he’s a practicing Muslim who’s noticed attitude changes since 9/11, Faisal still thinks America as the best of countries. “I think of it as the most welcoming and open country,” he told me last week. But the rise of President Donald Trump worries him. “The greatness of the United States has been denigrated because of the extreme thought processes out there. He has been fanning a lot of extremism that’s not just in the U.S.”

One of my closest friends, I haven’t seen Faisal in person in over ten years, but I called him up at his home in Mumbai, India last week as part of a check in with a few non-American friends on how the U.S. has changed in their perspective. I’ll write about more of my conversations next week, but Faisal told a story that made me think hard about what America offers to the world today.

An Indian patriot, Faisal’s father was a decorated brigadier general in the Indian Army who fought in the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. As a son of an Indian national hero, life has been privileged for Faisal, and he knows it, so he’s committed himself to lifting up his country, one of the reasons he’s so passionate about health care.

Faisal’s sense of morality and devotion to merit is emblematic of the best of liberal democracy, a core value of both the United States and India, and what Americans hope for when we take in new immigrants.

I asked him to tell me his thoughts on the United States as an Indian, and he sounded like a man torn between two countries, unsure if either one could be a good home for him and his family.

“I spent five years in the U.S. in the shadow of 9/11. And then continued to live there and work there, and not once did I have to realize the color of my skin or religion,” said Faisal with pain in his voice. “But in my own country I have come to realize that I can’t live in certain areas because I’m a Muslim.”

The rise of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, the leader of the Hindu nationalist party Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has brought a chill to India, Faisal says, as right-wing Hindus have suppressed and sometimes terrorized the country’s Muslim minority, which makes up about 15%, or 200 million people of the country’s 1.3 billion people. Before becoming the Indian PM in 2014, Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat State, where RSS actively suppressed the state’s Muslim minority.

Faisal started a new job in Hyderabad, the capital of Gujarat in 2013, to run a failing hospital. And already, you might know where this story is heading.

After a few weeks of living in a hotel, Faisal decided to look for an apartment, so his wife and kids could move to Hyderabad to live with him. He hired a broker and began to look at apartments.

“I’d go with a broker, find an apartment I like. [Then] they’d talk in Gujarati saying that they’d get back, and the call never came. This happened multiple times,” Faisal told me.

“Eventually someone on my team said, ‘You will not find an apartment in this area, the community lines run very deep. Because of your religion you are not supposed to live here, you live 10 kilometers from here.’ So I said, OK, I’ll take a look.”

“We go to the area. It’s a ghetto. It’s over a bridge, very nice on the Hindi side, but on this side, it’s a royal muck. I’m told by the broker there, who is a Muslim, ‘All the wealthy Muslims stay over here, because we are supposed to say here.’ So, show me an option, I tell him. He shows me something then asks if I’m a Sunni or Shia. Are you screwing around with me? I say. If you’re Sunni, you get this block, a Shia, that area.”

Faisal was shocked. Maybe he shouldn’t be, but raised by a veteran of India’s highly meritocratic Army, and educated in the United States, he expected more from his country.

“Eventually I found a man who said God dammit, I’m a Gujarati Hindu and I’ll do what I want. We got a ground level apartment in a good neighborhood. Very nice place.” So and his family moved in. “But then I’ll tell you what happened: Every day people put garbage in front of my door; one day a dead pigeon.”

Eventually, the harassment got bad enough that his wife told him a ghetto would be better than their “good neighborhood”. She begged him to move.

At one point, a man claiming to be a top member of the RSS, the far-right Hindu party run by Modi, visited Faisal at his hospital office. “He told me, ‘Hospitals are very difficult to run. I’ve seen CEOs like you get burnt up. I hope bad things don’t happen to you.’”

To his credit, Faisal ran the man out of his office, but he was shaken up. “Discriminated to the core, in my own country,” he said.

Soon after, the owner of a apartment building next to Faisal’s hospital visited him, wondering if any doctors might like to rent an apartment. “Can I see it? I said to him immediately. So we went to look at it, and it was wonderful. I offered him a lease on the spot. We moved into the apartment.” But now an experienced Gujarat resident, Faisal was smarter. “When I got the apartment, my company made the lease in the company name, which gave the owner cover.” Nobody could claim the Hindu apartment owner knew he was renting to a Muslim – even if he was a hospital CEO.

Fast forward seven years to today: Faisal’s older brother lives in Charlotte, North Carolina and after almost 20 years of living and working in the U.S., he’s decided to apply for permanent American residency, and is attempting to bring his parents along too. This has set off new thoughts for Faisal, of maybe moving to the U.S. himself.

When I met Faisal seventeen years ago, he was so gung-ho on India, that he tried to convince me to move there after graduate school. His persuasion skills are so strong, I almost did. But now, he’s thinks he might want to move to the U.S. Yet, he hesitates because he hears things have changed in the U.S. since he lived here.

“What we hear about America is that is not what it used to be, as a free country, as a place accepting of people of different backgrounds,” he said. “Nobody is going to make me a hospital CEO that’s for sure.”

“If I make this move it’ll not be for myself. I want to bring a better upbringing for my children. What’s going on now, it’s something my wife and I have not seen growing up,” Faisal said.

All around the developing world, there are talented men and women like Faisal who would like to be part of the American dream. Even though racism has come out of the darkness under President Trump, the Faisals of the world still want to come.

We need to change America back to a place where everyone who dreams of a better life can have a chance to build one.

I Have No Idea What Happens Next

Thirteen candidates showed up for the January 10, 2019 Chicago mayoral candidate forum! (Credit: ABC7Chicago).

There is one thing I can say for certain about Chicago’s election coming on Tuesday: That there will be runoff elections on April 2 for mayor. That’s unfamiliar territory for people like me, who invest a great deal of energy into trying to figure out what’s will happen next in Chicago politics. With fourteen mayoral candidates, six realistically in the hunt to make it to the runoff, and a likely low turnout, it’s almost impossible to tell who’s going make it to round two.

For decades Chicago has been a political incongruity, touting a weak mayor system on paper but living with a strong mayor system in reality. Yet, looking back on history, that strong mayor system has been unraveling for the last fifteen years. Local Democratic party organizations have disappeared, mayoral endorsements have mattered less, aldermen have bucked mayoral authority in Council votes more often. The drip-drip-drip has led us to this moment, where the outgoing mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is hugely unpopular, unable to endorse a successor and a fractured Cook County Democratic Party won’t rally behind their own party Chair, Toni Preckwinkle.

The 14 candidates offer a spectrum of ideologies and personalities. Bill Daley, brother of the former mayor and President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, is the big business candidate, more fiscally conservative than most. Willie Wilson, an African-American business leader famous for creating a popular gospel song television show, is socially conservative, but is totally unclear on any other policies. And then there’s the former police commissioner, Gerry McCarthy; the scion of a South Side political broker, Jerry Joyce, Jr.; the Latino backroom politico, Gery Chico; the Illinois Comptroller, Susana Mendoza; the police reformer, Lori Lightfoot; and the aforementioned Preckwinkle, backed by liberal service unions and the current Cook County Board President.

There is no lack of talent in the race, and every single one is likely to take Chicago in a totally different direction. While I may find certain aspects of each candidate attractive or objectionable, the electorate at large seems lost without a clear signal of who to support.

How do we choose?

Clearly Chicagoans are overwhelmed. Early voting numbers have dropped, possibly an important indicator since early voting as a percentage of turnout has increased with almost every election, as voters discover its convenience. Does that mean voters are holding off to vote until the last minute? Or are they waiting for the runoff election when their choices are narrowed down? Or are they sick of politics and just opting out of the whole process?

I have no idea.

If Chicago does actually have a low turnout, and people don’t show up in droves to vote Tuesday, whom does low turnout benefit? And will it be just low African-American and Latino turnout, while progressive whites turnout in droves like they did in November 2018?

I could hazard some guesses. For instance, maybe it helps Bill Daley and Susana Mendoza, who enjoy higher white voter support but low overall turnout hurts Toni Preckwinkle, who relies on an African-American base. I have no idea how this would help or hurt Lori Lightfoot, who has been surging lately. Polling I’ve seen shows her support higher among liberal whites who might have problems with Toni Preckwinkle. Maybe higher white turnout helps her? But would it be more or less than Daley or Mendoza?

Hard to say.

Meanwhile there’s about sixteen competitive aldermanic races, out of the 50 wards. That’s fewer than in 2015, which had over twenty. And in this year’s 16 competitive races, maybe eight will go to a runoff. Progressive service unions like SEIU and the Chicago Teachers Union are pouring in cash to help their candidates. But so are conservative trade unions like the Plumbers and Carpenters. And of course developers are too. Given all that money, which candidates will spend their money well versus just spray it all over indiscriminate TV ads and direct mail campaigns?

I don’t know.

I’ve listened to consultants in all kinds of campaigns tell me with absolute certainty they know how things will turn out. That makes sense, since they’re selling certainty, and people quickly forget failures when they’re drowned by the noise of success. But I’m counseling caution, and for candidates and voters alike to act on their conscience.

Candidates: Go as hard as you can as long as you can. You’ll never regret taking action, only the ones you didn’t take.

Voters: Forget who you’re supposed to vote for, and vote for who moves you, if even a little. Chicago will change tremendously with the next mayor, and you’ll likely never have another Chicago election where your conscience will matter so much.

Go vote Chicago. Your voice needs to be heard.

Gov.-Elect Pritzker, Let’s Heal Illinois’ Cultural Rift

Embed from Getty Images

Dear Governor-Elect J.B. Pritzker,

I write to you with serious concern about our divided state. While Democrats have won a tremendous victory in Illinois, winning not only the Governor’s office but every constitutional office as well as veto-proof majorities in both the State House and Senate, this election revealed a widening gap between city and rural, metropolitan and country.

While suburban Chicago voted more Democratic than ever before, Southern and Central Illinois voters – a demographically dwindling constituency – redoubled their Republicanism. The urban-rural Illinois divide is not only about support for President Donald Trump, but also on gun laws, abortion and immigration.

Not since the late 1800’s has there been such a yawning social gap between these communities. But unlike 120 years ago, the farm economy has collapsed, providing our rural counties and small towns with many fewer economic opportunities than our biggest cities. While some rural residents are able to take advantage of what cities have to offer, many more are alienated from our biggest cities. Simultaneously, most metropolitan Chicagoans have no connection to our rural areas and couldn’t even begin to understand the culture country life has to offer.

It is a mistake to consider the problem as solely economic: The most troubling divide is cultural. Southern and Central Illinois communities lack thriving immigrant and minority communities, as in Chicago, and as a result have come to view them as a threat to the American way of life. Meanwhile, metropolitan Chicago residents rarely hunt and as a result tend to consider gun culture as violent and disruptive.

As an inner city resident, I know from my conversations with rural Illinois residents, that my way of life not only seems unfathomable to many Illinoisans outside metropolitan Chicago, but potentially threatening. Chicagoans feel much the same way about rural Illinoisans. Many rural Illinoisans have no desire to set foot in Chicago, while most Chicagoans can’t imagine what rural and small town Illinois could have to offer them.

These differences have become rooted into the most elemental aspects of our daily lives. There are certain things rural Illinois does and places it goes to, while metropolitan Chicago does not. These differences, like Walmart vs. Target or NASCAR vs. basketball, have become more than just lifestyle choices, but totems of identity that keep us apart. This is not a problem unique to our state, but this is our state, and thus our problem.

If Illinois is going to achieve economic greatness, we must find a way to heal our cultural rift, so that rural Illinoisans are comfortable with coming to Chicago, while metropolitan Chicagoans see value in visiting and investing in rural Illinois.

As the governor-elect of Illinois with a sweeping political mandate, you, Mr. Pritzker, have a unique opportunity to bring our two communities back together. Now that you’re elected, we need a new kind of campaign: one that demonstrates the welcoming and vital cultures of metropolitan Chicago and rural, small town Illinois.

Of course this kind of campaign should include an advertising component, to educate Illinoisans on how their state’s cultural diversity enhances their lives, but it should also include extensive outreach programs that personally introduces inner city Chicagoans to rural life, and small town Illinoisans to urban diversity. Building on Jahmal Cole’s My Block, My Hood, My City program would be an excellent start, although his program has been limited to connecting Chicagoans to one another.

College students from rural Illinois could spend a semester in urban Chicago colleges, much as my father, a white Bowdoin College student from New England, spent a semester of 1961 as a Morehouse College exchange student in Atlanta. Rural extension programs could host Chicagoans, while Chicago City Colleges could host Christian County residents. We could conduct cooking class exchanges, class trips, connect car clubs, knitting circles, and a dozen other hobbyist groups.

The goal would be to foster dialogue, friendships and communication. Ride the L, eat a taco, debate who makes the best rib tips. Cruise in a pick up, make venison, hike in a state park. We need to experience each other’s realities and communities so that Illinois can lift itself up, rather than debate who should be called a “True American”.

As we venture beyond our home communities in Illinois, we need to believe that our neighbors understand us and want to assist us. Only then, will Illinois truly achieve the greatness it deserves.

Let’s defy the rest of America, and do what Midwesterns do best: pull together as one.

A Letter To My Conservative Friends

Dear Conservative Friend,

I have admired many conservatives. George Will, Jack Kemp, Bill Kristol, William Safire, and Peggy Noonan among them. Their thinking was strong and robust enough that it caused me to consider whether or not my own thinking was sound. On occasion, they even changed my mind.

The basic concept of American conservative thinking is clear: Government should avoid impeding individual progress while ensuring American safety and security. Liberals like me have fought with conservatives over how far government should go, and at what level government should be allowed to participate in our lives. Over the years we have gone back and forth over the same issues as the body politic has waxed and waned from liberal to conservative.

But this election is not about liberal versus conservative. Today, we’re actively applying government in ways new to the American project. We’re sending the military to protect our southern border from the lowest number of illegal migrants we’ve seen in over thirty years. The Justice Department is actively opposing state-level judicial reform efforts. The Department of Interior is allowing offshore drilling, despite local state government opposition. The President is insisting he can institute constitutional changes by executive order.

When liberalism goes wrong, it becomes a command economy suppressing all growth, as Western Europe experienced in the 1970’s and 80’s. When conservatism goes wrong, it becomes a kleptocracy widening the gap between rich and poor, as South America experienced from the 1960’s through the mid-1990’s.

Under Donald Trump, America’s conservative thinkers have been sidelined in favor of the mega-rich and nationalist paranoiacs. Our government is being used to enrich the wealthiest while turbocharging the fears of disenfranchised whites. It’s an old formula, used by Putin, Pinochet, Peron, and especially that German guy with a short mustache.

Continuing down this course will only get more perilous, and unfortunately, since Trump’s election, nobody in the Republican Party has stood up to check Trump’s power in a meaningful way (retiring officials don’t count!). While our nation needs conservatives to keep liberals in check – and yes, this liberal agrees a check is needed now and then – the American GOP abdicated its claim to power since it has refused to oppose Trump’s basest policies.

Wherever you are in America, a Republican vote is a vote for Trump’s nationalist, kleptocratic government. As much as it may pain you to vote against your home party, if you want rebuke Trumpism, you need to pull a lever for Democrats this year.

Will Democrats go overboard after the election? Probably. But they’ll also fight Trump like mad. And then in 2020, maybe we’ll get some real conservate choices across the country.

Cast your vote: because if you don’t, you don’t matter.

Thanks for reading. I hope to hear from you.

-Mike

Prepare To Be Dissatisfied This November

Here in the city of Chicago, there are few visual signs that a critical national election is less than two weeks away. Our six Congressmen and two Senators mirror the city’s voting history – staunchly Democratic – and it seems that the sitting Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, is headed to a big loss, so get out the vote efforts are less noticeable than in places with more competitive races.

My reading of the electoral tea leaves tells me that we should expect some kind of “blue wave” on November 6, with Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives and winning more governor’s races than the GOP. There’s evidence that we’re headed to one of the biggest turnouts in mid-term history, which generally portends good things for Democrats – when more people vote, they tend to vote Democratic.

But because of where the contests for Senate seats are – overwhelmingly rural, Trump-friendly states – I don’t think Democrats will take control of the Senate. Even if the GOP maintains a razor-thin, one or two seat margin, it doesn’t matter. Control is control, and only one party can run the chamber.

But even so, Democrats have no chance to win enough seats to achieve a super-majority in the Senate, needed to avoid cloture, pass veto-proof legislation, or provide the two-thirds majority to convict a president of impeachment.

This election will provide satisfaction to nobody. Democrats will be cheered on by their new control of the House, but Republicans will continue to control the Senate and the Presidency. We will continue to clash, Trump will enact more horrific policies, and the GOP Senate will keep supporting him.

There will be no compromise between the two sides, and yet neither side will have enough power to overcome the other.

So this would be a good time to remember that democratic politics can be a slow process with many fits and starts. While there has been a number of tremendous progressive victories in recent years, notably legalization of gay marriage, the passage of Obamacare, and a growing, state-by-state decriminalization of marijuana possession, these changes resulted from decades of organizing.

We need to get everyone we can to the polls on November 6, and then remember that if we want lasting, meaningful change, we’ll have to do it again in 2020 in an even bigger way.

The End of Sympathy And Compromise

Embed from Getty Images

I was raised in a decidedly left-wing family. My mother and father both marched on Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King, Jr., and when I was a kid, my father practiced an annual ritual of yelling at the TV during President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address.

But my parents, both psychologists, were empathic souls, constantly trying to understand why someone felt a certain way. At the dinner table we spent a great deal of time talking about why people might feel they way they do. Since conversations about politics when I was a kid were less about tactics and more about motivation, I learned my parents’ empathy, so as an adult I often feel as much for political opponents as with those I agree.

This week has been toxic for everyone in America. None of us have been left untouched by the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination fight, and the race to declare our own side more aggrieved – regardless of what side we may claim – has left us all wounded and raw. Kavanaugh’s confirmation is our era’s Bleeding Kansas, with no winners, only losers and survivors more committed to scarring the opposition more than ever before.

Incredibly, we all recognize that the partisanship will only get worse. Like Kansas in the 1850’s, and the European military build up in the 1930’s, a perverse gravity pulls us towards more conflict fueled by the appropriate righteousness of our leaders, colleagues and loved ones injured by wounds both material and spiritual.

The ideologies of our political combat inhabit totally different frames of reference: the army of collective well-being versus the church of personal responsibility. Everything can be viewed through our nation’s First Conflict, where Hamiltonians governed to level the playing field while Jeffersonians pushed government aside to celebrate the triumph of the individual.

Each American era has been caught up in this conflict, from the Whiskey Rebellion, to the Civil War to the Progressive Era battles between unions and Pinkerton agents and the fights between Nixon’s “moral majority” and anti-war protestors.

Our First Conflict will never be resolved. Not because of pettiness or ignorance, but because each viewpoint is propelled by a deep moral philosophy. Gender complementarianism is inherently incompatible with gender workplace equity. Socialized health care and calls for a basic income conflicts with a conservative government of non-interference. Everyone can agree that racism and misogyny is abhorrent, but who is responsible for stopping it? The individual, or the collective?

“It will only get worse,” we all say, with no clear idea of what “worse” really means. We are all aggrieved now, with the most strident among us demanding we “stomp”, “destroy” or “obliterate” our political opposition. Sampling political Twitter, talk radio or cable news is like sampling heroin: The first jolt is exhilarating, but subsequent tastes leave us craving more righteousness, gradually obliterating equanimity, viewing America as nothing more than “us” and “them”. We are all addicts now.

My political beliefs have never been clearer to me, but today I weep for all Americans. Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation is emblematic of our new political reality: Although his ascension is a victory for conservatives, the manner of his confirmation has de-legitimized the new Supreme Court for a wide swath of America, making justice seem unattainable for those who opposed his confirmation.

American political conflict no longer allows for compromise. The Kavanaugh fight has instead told us that we must choose sides and fight to the end, no matter how terrible the result.

What The Road Forward Looks Like

Capitol Hill sunset, September 14, 2014. Source: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Congressional Republicans are not going to impeach Donald Trump.

Let’s be straight up about that. Polling continually shows the GOP base still believes everything from the Mueller investigation is either a lie or irrelevant. So among Republican senators and representatives, there’s almost no appetite for an impeachment trial.

Democrats may take control of both the House and the Senate this fall, but only under the craziest circumstances will Democrats take more than a narrow majority in the Senate. A successful impeachment requires a majority vote in the House and a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Just like with Bill Clinton in 1998, a Trump impeachment would likely fall along party lines and fail in the Senate.

The Democrats will not have enough votes to impeach Donald Trump.

But oh! Mueller will report out a devastating list of crimes committed by Trump and GOP members will get a backbone!

Yes he will, and no they won’t. Because here’s what we should expect:

The Mueller investigation will grind on, maybe even send Don Trump, Jr. and others to jail.

Democrats will take the House by a significant margin this November, and maybe a slim majority in the Senate. Immediately upon taking legislative control, Democrats will be consumed by a left vs. center party battle, where the former wants to impeach and the the latter wants to pass meaningful policy. Congress lurches from stalemate to forward motion on both policy and impeachment.

Trump, under intense legal pressure, continues to be awful. Tears apart international relationships, hurls needless insults at Democrats, holes up in the White House, basically talking to nobody that isn’t a far right toady.

Republican legislators interested in political survival (which will be most) will be forced to choose one of two positions: Rally under Trump, hurling more insults at Democrats or try to become invisible, hoping to can position themselves as moderate in the 2020 elections.

And then the 2020 elections, which will become an even more massive referendum on Donald Trump. The Republican Party will eat itself alive, while a broad field of Democratic presidential primary candidates, maybe the most racially and gender diverse in history, will compete to be the most non-Trump offering.

Finally, in the general election, Donald Trump will be, incredibly, the nominee, because the GOP base will still stick with him to the end, becoming more raucous and bile-filled than ever before. Trump rallies become outright dangerous for press to attend, and all the white nationalist crazies will come out of every crack, maybe even mounting physical attacks.

Americans of every stripe will be pulled into participating in the 2020 election, recognizing it as a fight for survival. There will be right wing violence, left wing too. American elections will begin to look like something from 1980’s Italy where polling places are raided by barely-legal or extra-legal “election monitors”. Voter suppression will be at an all time high. Latinos and black people in rural areas will be targeted and maybe killed.

And then? I don’t know.

I hope a majority of America comes to its senses and votes out Trump. But maybe not.

But even if Trump is voted out, the transition will be ugly. Trump will cast doubt on the electoral process we’ve held sacred all these years, and America will be forever scarred.

It’s only going to get worse.

Just Keep Going At It

A precocious child who devoured three newspapers a day, when I was seventeen I decided that I should get involved with politics. Although I read the papers, I didn’t have strong opinions on who should be my local alderman in Chicago’s 43rd Ward. Edwin Eisendrath was up for reelection in 1991, and I didn’t know much about him. But his challenger’s campaign office was a couple blocks from my house, so I trudged through the January snow to the Mary Baim office, and declared that I wanted to volunteer.

Too young to vote or register new voters, and a nobody nobody sent, the campaign staff sent me off to knock doors in random snow clogged precincts, with a message to encourage votes for Baim. Hoping to gain access to what I imagined “the real politics” of the campaign’s smoke filled back room, I set out in freezing Chicago winter weather, knocking on doors and meeting hundreds of people who miraculously had patience for a kid that wanted to talk ward politics.

Yes, hundreds. From the start I knocked doors like a fiend, plowing through precincts with a zeal that impressed the grizzled campaign staff. Once, earning, “Wow, kid, you just keep going at it, don’t you?” was the most exciting thing I’d heard, ever.

Even though I did the typical volunteer thing – I faded out when life got in the way – that campaign was the beginning of a life-long obsession with politics. It really didn’t matter that I had no idea what Mary Baim’s policies were, nor did I know much about Edwin Eisendrath’s. I was hooked by knocking doors, turning out votes and excitement of a democratic process empowering a clueless teenager.

Even though it was freezing cold, I’ll never forget the people I met at those first doors I knocked. The woman charmed by a teenager asking for a vote, and then quizzing me for ten minutes at the door about the candidates. The guy with a hothouse jungle just inside that invited me in from the cold to warm up a bit. Did I turn their votes? I’m not sure. But I sure liked meeting them: my world got bigger and richer knowing they existed.

Of course, Mary Baim lost 58% to 42%. Eisendrath served one more term, and recently came back to Chicago politics by leading a group to purchase the Chicago Sun Times. David Axelrod was then-Alderman Eisendrath’s political consultant, and we know how things turned out for him. Funny how the world turns, isn’t it?

When I think back to that January 1991 Chicago election, things seemed so tame in comparison to the political heat of today. The Cold War was ending, Mayor Richard M. Daley was promising a peaceful and efficient city government, the drums of the first Gulf War were yet to rumble.

Bringing us to the present, it seems as if the stakes for this November’s national election get higher every day. Ignoring the Omarosa sideshow and the tension of whether or not Robert Muller will indict President Donald Trump for collusion, there’s plenty of policies to sicken your stomach: From ICE stopping and detaining a man while he drives his wife to a hospital deliver their baby, to the failing economic tariffs against China, Europe, Canada and Mexico, to a new plan to give America’s wealthiest a tax cut by presidential order.

Planning to vote is not enough. America needs you to put some skin in the game for your local election for Congress, Senate, governor, or state legislature. If you‘ve never knocked a door or made calls for a candidate before, like that teenager in 1991, I guarantee you’ll discover a kind of magic available to Americans every election cycle.

For each jerk at the door or on the phone, you’ll meet five sweethearts, genuinely interested people and charming oddballs that make up your community. You’ll marvel that you spent so much time in their proximity, but never met them before. You’ll discover a legion of like-minded citizens who want to make a positive change for a better America.

If you’ve volunteered before, you know about the magic, but also the confusion of campaigns and how silly and rudderless they can seem. But you also know the power you, as a volunteer have to change your world.

Get down to your local candidate’s campaign. America needs you to to just keep going at it.

In Praise of Federal Bureaucrats

When I was twenty-eight I owned four dark suits and one light. I kept an extra pair of white shirts in my office because Washington summers were muggy, and you wanted to look crisp if you were called to an important meeting. In the morning, after I was woken up by the thud of cannon fire at nearby Fort Meyers, I’d walk a few blocks to the always crowded Metro, and ride seven stops to my job in a big federal building with brutalist architecture.

An enterprising Cambodian woman with a coffee cart outside the main entrance to the Department of Energy, rapidly poured steaming lattes and all-blacks to the hundreds streaming to their jobs. Once in the lobby, we’d wave our badges at the phalanx of federal police guarding the entrance.

We jammed into the elevators, then the crowd thinned out riding to the top floor. Exhilaration of a new day would thrill, as our leather shoes clicked down the long, white linoleum hallways to our desks.

By the time I got to work at eight in the morning, the building was buzzing with colonels and commanders, usually there since four. The military side was always busy, and seemed frustrated that civilians worked four hours later than them.

Click-clacking down the linoleum, I’d pass ones and twos of jacket-less men, clad in short-sleeved, white button-down shirts with pocket protectors carrying three-ring binders filled with tabs. Just as many women moved through the halls, carrying binders of their own and color-coded manila folders, with long skirts and far-from-couture blouses in muted colors.

The action began as soon as I turned on my computer. Hours of email from always the awake military side, and strings of conversation from the West Coast civilians. Debates about rules, policies and science. A young man appointed to my job by politicians, I was outclassed by the permanent workers surrounding me. Dozens of best-in their field engineers, Ph.D. economists and a smattering of scientists who’d only a few months ago been smashing protons together.

Every day was a struggle to read more, learn more and keep up with the dialogue. Women and men would rattle off esoteric and obscenely detailed knowledge of science, economic models written in Excel and the health impacts on projected tens of thousands of people. Careful! Because just a change in one phrase of a rule could impact a hundred thousand Americans. It was often repeated: You had to get things right, because in federal policy-making, you didn’t get a second chance any time soon.

Riding down the elevator, stopping in program offices, you’d encounter phalanxes of balding men and widening women, who signed up for their jobs decades ago, planning to become experts in their fields. Now, they were The Person who knew all the things. It might be about radioactive waste glassification, solar panels, carbon valuation, diesel particulates, climate change negotiation strategies or Saudi oil wells.

Working to solve a problem in government, or markets, you’d go looking for The Person, and when you found them, they’d be ensconced in a beige cubicle, walls covered by printed charts, kid art and maybe a certificate of Excellent Federal Service.

The Person would swivel in their chair, you’d ask your question, and then a geyser of knowledge would come out. Moments later, they’d produce three-ring binders of studies with charts, graphs and detailed narrative. It was too much. Your question was answered, but you had to find a way to cap the geyser, so much was the desire to pour out understanding. This was the Federal Government, and they had to make sure the policy was Done Right The First Time.

Everyone knew, after fifteen years or so, you could jump to the private sector and double your salary. But they stayed. Many until mandatory retirement, even a few who petitioned for and got exceptions to stay longer because they were The Person Who Knew Things, and didn’t want to leave until someone was trained up to replace them.

It stiffened my spine, being amongst so many earnest men and women. They talked about Serving The President with stone faces, and the word America was invoked often and never in jest. They were civil servants, many serving what they thought of as a call to work for our nation, even if most citizens would never understand what they do every day.

These are the people I think of when I hear about federal bureaucrats. We don’t laud them like soldiers or sailors, and they don’t face bullets or shells, yet today, their dedication and commitment to rules, policies and science maintains the line between rule of law and authoritarianism in our country.

I am grateful for their service.

Who Are We, Any Way?

If there’s anything Donald Trump’s presidency has provided America, it is an intense, national examination of the nature of class and voters’ political motivations. Trump’s election, and the transformation of the Republican Party into a nationalist, authoritarian totem has scrambled conventional thinking about political and social divides of every kind.

Every week we receive a new treatise telling us who Trump voters really are. This week The Atlantic told us that evangelicals are the ones who really elected Trump. But we’ve also heard tales of blue collar whites (now rescinded), disaffected middle class whites and also minority voters who felt let down by Barack Obama’s presidential tenure.

The Democratic and Republican parties are tearing themselves apart in response to Trump, each in their own way. A growing coalition of socialist Democrats are trying to take control from the “New Democrats” who first rose to power under Bill Clinton in the 1990’s, while some conservatives rail against voting for the Republican Party at all in this year’s Congressional mid-term elections.

At the moment, America seems like a crazy, topsy-turvy country, with no clear center and a million competing visions for the future. No matter what the political issue, gun control, abortion, energy, environment or transit, the fractures created by geography, class, race and religion loom larger than ever. We are bedeviled to find a common language as we are blessed with internet-speed communication.

From our very beginning, America was forged from different peoples with dissimilar, often incongruent ideas about the nature of liberty and nationhood. At our best, the fact these differences exist is the bedrock of American diversity. But occasionally these opposing ideas of liberty divide us to the core, and once that divide is exposed, it often takes either great leadership or a cataclysm to bring us back together.

Our two earliest colonies, Massachusetts and Virginia, founded by Puritans and Cavaliers in the 1500’s, had very different ideas of a successful society. Puritans were a close-knit community with rigid rules for all participants, but also with a high priority on the population’s general welfare. The Cavaliers, in Virginia, created an exploitive, every-man-for-himself society with that held the individual’s abilities and freedom at the highest level.

Throughout American history, these two ideas of liberty – rule-bound but with community assistance that frees a person from want, versus freedom from government that makes success or failure entirely your own – have been the core of almost every internal conflict. Soon after independence, this split drove America’s first crises over taxation and a national bank. The split revisited us eighty years later, leading to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Today, our struggles over the role of the welfare state and who is really entitled to be an American can be traced back to that split.

What do we stand for, any way? The Trump Administration continues to pull down icons of the old, liberal order, leading everyone to question what it means to have “American values”. Just this month Trumpists won Supreme Court judgements that stymie public employee unions and reduce voting rights while ordering federal bureaucrats to new levels of cruelty by separating toddlers and children from immigrant parents at the border.

Strong unions, voting rights and open borders, major policies enacted in the 1960’s and once considered bedrock, are now all up for debate.

Does the Trump Administration embody American values? A respected poll released Thursday reports 47% of Americans approve of President Trump’s job performance. While in office, Trump has never gotten below the high 30’s, suggesting that some large portion of America really likes what he’s up to, and always will.

Meanwhile, a survey sponsored by former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Joe Biden found that 55% of Americans believe American democracy is getting weaker. A plurality of non-white Americans believe racism and discrimination is weakening democracy, while 77% of all Americans believe “the laws enacted by our national government these days mostly reflect what powerful special interests and their lobbyists want”.

Clearly, Americans are conflicted. We have a lot of opinions about Donald Trump, but it doesn’t seem we’ve made up our mind about him and what he’s up to.

One thing I’ve learned about democracy is that it’s easy to find people with an opinion. Ubiquitous polling has proven that. But it’s a whole other thing to find people that will vote. The voting part is what decides which values become policy.