I Was Raised By A Black Woman

One of my mothers was a black woman and I miss her more than words can convey.

I’ve tried countless times to write this essay, because I want to tell you about my relationship with Inez Fleming. I keep stopping, or have thrown away previous drafts because I’ve been so afraid to talk about this well-to-do, white man’s connection to a poor, black woman. If I’ve learned anything about race and class in America, it’s that it twists and corrupts our understanding of one another.

By telling you about my invisible, undeniable bond with Inez, now buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery, I’m opening up my pristine, loving memories of her to you. Please be careful with my memories. You may have your own ideas about what we were to one another, and maybe they are right. But I have my own memories and ideas, and I know those will always be true.

When my biological mother started her career, Inez was hired to take me during the days and nights. It was the 1970’s, and as progressive as my dad was, he was going to work too. I was just six weeks old when Inez entered my life.

She was my Inez. You may have a different, more common name for what she was, but I will never say it, because “second mother” seems like the only term that fits.

Two years later, my mother and father divorced, and Inez stepped in for more hours. I knew her better than my biological mother at times. It was not uncommon for me to call her “mom”, because that’s what she was.

My strongest memories of childhood are of Inez trundling me around in her green and white Impala. I moved with her in South Side Chicago’s world of black women caring for white children. Again, because it was the 1970’s, that often meant going to some of those caretaker’s houses, or to greasy chicken shacks for lunch. It seemed there were fewer rules those days, so I rode along into Inez’ world most days, listening to gossip about so-and-so, running errands for her friends. Nobody seemed to mind.

We were close. Everyone remarked on it. I’m not sure what I did to show it, but she hugged and held me tight. And when I was bad, she threatened to “get a switch”, but she never did.

Inez was from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, although Inez had left long before that had happened. I’d asked her about life in Mississippi, but she always deflected, saying, “I don’t like to talk about bad things, Michael. That’s why I came here.”

Sweet, full of smiles, and devoted to Christ and Roman Catholicism, she was wiser than her lack of education should have allowed. She understood people, and could detect a false motive a mile away. “I only deal with good people, Michael. There are too many bad people in this world, and I can’t make time for them.”

Round and with a weakness for food of all kinds–especially Neji pop–Inez struggled with weight her entire life and eventually with bad knees and diabetes. Going on, and staying on diets were a constant topic with her, up until the end. My mother, who became close friends with Inez, would talk recipes and bring her loads of fresh fruit, hoping her habits would change. But South Side church dinners and chicken shacks don’t usually serve diet-friendly food, and so the diets always came to an end.

For complicated family reasons, my mother and step-father let Inez go when I was seven. Her services were quickly picked up by another family I knew, which made me jealous beyond belief.

I insisted on visiting her regularly to make sure she was still “my Inez” and to check in with her. I was a child, so I didn’t know exactly how to check in, but I did my childish best.

The visits were at first a few times a year, eventually winding down to twice, then once. By the time I went to college, we mostly talked on the phone and exchanged cards and letters. I still have them, in her flowey, perfect Palmer Method script.

Around when when I was thirty, my mother got very sick with cancer, I orchestrated a visit between her and Inez. The logistics were difficult, since Inez was also enfeebled now, using a walker and visiting dialysis twice a week. My mother was less feeble, although using a walker of her own, so we visited Inez’ second-floor walk up. It was terrible, and lovely.

The three of us present knew it was the last visit. Not a goodbye, just yet, so we made the best of it with a dinner cooked in the apartment and jokes and stories. My mother and Inez reminisced and told each other how much they loved one another, a conversation Inez repeated back to me verbatim, up until the last week of her life.

After that, they called each other every other day, just to check in. To complain about hospitals and nurses, things they’d both experienced in detail.

“She’s like my sister, your mother is,” Inez would say. And they both pledged their undying devotion to each other. Inez had pulled my mother through early motherhood, and then her divorce from my dad, and supported her early career. My mother and dad had steadied Inez, took her to a bank to open her first bank account, loved her and gave her security when her brutal husband left her after years of beatings and alcoholism.

But my mother’s illness frightened Inez. “Who will take care of me, now?” she asked me. She had no other family.

Then when my mother died, my father flew in for the funeral, prepared to pick up Inez for the service.

“I can’t do it, baby,” she told me on the phone. “I just can’t do it. My knees hurt too much. But you know how much I loved your mother, don’t you.”

It was an excuse, of course. But my father and I understood and visited her together the next day. It was the first time he’d seen her in fifteen years. “So gaunt,” my dad said. The once rotund, jolly woman was now ashen, with skin hanging off her bones. Dad was visibly shaken.

Quickly now, Inez began to decline. Exhausted and depressed by dialysis, my visits to her house or trips to dialysis barely perked her up. Once, I convinced a priest friend of mine, to visit her house and say a private mass. When the priest and I arrived, Inez had tidied her house, put on her wig and a bucket of rouge, and had set out snacks. Delightful, it still makes me smile to think of her excitement.

Eventually, her knees got so bad that she couldn’t walk up her own stairs. Her social worker begged her to enter a nursing home. We knew what that decision meant.

“I don’t want to go there, honey. That’s where people die,” Inez said. I remember it clearly.

But, if you don’t go, you’ll fall and probably die sooner, I told her. And so she went.

It was good at first. I visited twice a week for a long while. People in the nursing home seemed to perk up when the white man in a suit kept visiting this one old, black lady. Inez knew it too, and chuckled over the treatment she got from the nurses as a result. “They asked me, is that your lawyer? And I said, No! That’s my God son!”

And so I was.

Things went on like this for a while. But, as it goes, a sudden jolt changes things. For Inez, there was an accident on the shuttle she rode in to dialysis. The driver had forgotten to strap her wheelchair down, and when he came to a sudden stop, she violently rolled forward, and fell out of her chair, breaking her hip.

Now, the social worker asked, “Who is her next of kin? Because she needs a legal guardian.”

Then Inez pointed at me. “He is. He is my son. He’ll sign the papers.”

Even now, thinking of that moment, I’m brought to tears.

Of course, her health got worse. There were more hospital visits, doctors, social workers. We talked less, because she was weakening quickly. When she could, we talked about old days, and how she was ready to see The Lord.

The visits shook me. I’d cry on the Metra Electric as I headed north.

And then the call came: She’s crashed and is having another heart attack. Do we resuscitate?


I scraped together some life insurance receipts she had in the back a of a drawer, and visited the funeral home. Her insurance wasn’t nearly enough to pay for a funeral and burial, so my dad and I paid the rest. Some cousins came, a couple old friends. But Inez was old with few relations left. She was either 71 according to her expired driver’s license, or 88 according to her welfare records. Philadelphia, Mississippi didn’t have a birth certificate.

Inez Fleming taught me compassion and love. She taught me to be suspicious of overly generous people, and she taught me that it’s a good thing to care deeply and give of your self to others that you care about.

I miss her every day, and I wish that race and class didn’t mean anything. I wish I was allowed to use the lessons Inez gave me to connect with people the way she taught me.

It’s Time For Illinois To Subsidize Local News Gathering

The Danville Commercial-News building in Danville, Illinois. Once a 30,000 circulation daily paper, it now claims about 15,000. Credit: Randy von Liski/Flickr

The business of reporting local political news is dying because we consumers just don’t care. It was never that big to begin with, anyway, since while local politics got front page treatment, the real reason we watched, read and listened was to learn about the new movie, restaurant or big game. But the Great Internet Disaggregation has given us Fandango, Yelp and ESPN, and myriad other information sources that do a much better and thorough job. As a result, we’re no longer drawn to news organizations like we once were and miss out on local political news.

Stripped of features, listings and everything fun, newspapers and local television and radio news have doubled down on the hard stuff: City and regional government reporting. It’s all critical information that can directly affect our lives, but for the vast majority of consumers, local politics is boring dreck that pales in comparison to just about everything else on God’s green earth. We’re ditching our news subscriptions for hundreds of other more fun things, like Candy Crush, TMZ, fantasy football sites and whatever else captures our fancy.

While Chicago’s “big” publications, The Chicago Tribune, Sun Times and Chicago Reader still exist, they are all shadows of what they were just ten years ago. Across the Illinois, McClatchy, Lee and Gannett-owned newspapers in smaller cities are often barely beyond pamphlet size on some days. Without help, there’s only one direction for this trend: down.

It’s a tough business competing for eyeballs against all the digital attractions of today’s media age. If news organizations want to survive, they have to focus their reporting resources on things more alluring than city council meetings.

As a result, it’s time for Illinois’ local daily newspapers to do away with paying for city and county reporters and for the state to directly fund a local reporting wire service for every big and medium-sized city and county around the state. Subsidized local reporting could be put into print, but would also be more economically published on local news organizations’ websites, going right to the people often missing quality, local reporting.

A far from radical idea, government subsidies for local news are becoming old hat these days. The Canadian government has debated increasing their local news subsidy to C$350 million (Vice News has already been a beneficiary in Toronto) and the New Jersey legislature just implemented a $5 million local news subsidy.

The Illinois Local News Wire would be inexpensive, as government programs go, and would fight local corruption more efficiently than any other government program. It would free up local news organizations resources so they could be focused on more interesting stories, such as human interest or deep investigative work, that would draw more local readers, strengthening the overall news ecosystem.

We should implement this plan sooner, rather than later, before news audiences completely lose faith in their local publications and there’s nothing left to prop up.

Most consumers are totally uninterested in local government and politics until something important happens. We tune out, concentrating on our personal lives––and then a scandal, tragedy, big sports win or terrible crime occurs. Big or salacious, these events grab our attention and focuses us on our broader community. As a result, news publications experience unpredictable waves, big ups and big downs of audience attention. We all want a copy of the local paper’s front page after the World Series win, but could care less about the county board budget vote the next day.

This kind of wave can be exhilarating, but undulating audiences are hard to monetize. Publishers need consistency to keep advertisers.

Smart editors know this, and employ a litany of stratagems to hold our attention. In Chicago, The Chicago Tribune runs lots of deep investigative stories, thinking that readers want to feel like they’re being educated about government run amok. The Sun Times also has its own splashy investigative stories, with a smattering of crime stories. In the Big Apple, the newly shrunken New York Daily News looks like it will focus on crime stories as well. There’s always a tranche of paranoid citizens that want to know the worst.

Lost in this is boring local government reporting for average citizens. Yes, metro daily newspapers still keep City Hall beat reporters on the job, but it’s viewed as a sunk cost, rather than than a venue for differentiation and to attract daily readers. And in towns like Chicago where there are multiple news outlets covering local government every day, basic city hall reporting is pretty much the same, barring stylistic differences noticeable only by the most dedicated readers. (Insider political publications like The Daily Line and Capitol Fax are a different breed, since they contain a level of detail no average reader would ever care to ingest.)

But smaller cities, like Peoria and Carbondale, are almost entirely lacking regular local government coverage because newsrooms just can’t afford it like in years past. As a result, when something big happens, and news organizations are caught flat-footed, by missing major details or even the entire story, local audiences lose faith in the publication, dropping the daily news habit.

Creating and maintaining The Illinois Local News Wire would be relatively cheap and easy. Contracted on five-year basis and operated by a non-profit news organization, such as Illinois Public Radio or the Illinois Press Association, operating a strong team of text-only reporters and editors for every city and county over 30,000 people in Illinois would cost less than $3 million a year. Like the old City News Bureau in Chicago, reporters would stick to the basics of government meetings, announcements and elections. Investigative work could come from the local paper of record, while The Illinois Local News Wire would provide baseline reporting.

Like other wire services, reporting content would be made available to qualifying news organizations, with a low hurdle, such as membership with The Illinois Press Association, or demonstrating that your organization includes more than one full-time editorial staffer. Like most Associated Press reports, only publications could have access to the reporting. The point is to drive local news publication readership, and for local editors to make local editorial decisions.

Creating an Illinois Local News Wire would free up local news organizations to fill their pages with stories readers really want, give local politicians and leaders a platform to communicate citizens, and ensure local governments across the state get the watchdog reporting they need to stay honest and effective. It’s time for us to recognize that the free market has failed, and local government and politics reporting is too important to let lapse.

Chance Has Just One To Make Chicagoist Work

This morning Chance Bennett, a.k.a., Chance The Rapper, announced his acquisition of Chicagoist from the shambling remains of Joe Ricketts’ DNAInfo-Gothamist company. It’s a great title with a significant audience, and one that I have deep affection for, since I was one of the four founding writers, when “Chicagoist Prime”, Rachelle Bowden, kicked it off in 2004.

Among media-types, there’s been a hue and cry about the publication’s editorial future, especially since in Mr. Bennett’s announcement, via his new song “I Might Need Security”, he says, “I bought the Chicagoist just to run you racist bitches outta business.” Yes, there’s conjecture: but who exactly is he talking about here?

But let’s assume Mr. Bennett can work out a strong, independent editorial policy. The real question is: How is he going to make sure the publication thrives without regular cash injections? What’s the business plan?

Anyone who’s paid attention to news media knows, local publications have been shrinking and closing at a furious rate for the last ten years. The reason: the economics of local news is bad and getting worse.

Chicagoist, despite its local content, did not have a locally operated business. Part of the Gothamist Network, it benefited from being part of a national and somewhat-global chain of -ist publications that sold ad space to national brands. Severed from that chain, Chicagoist is no longer a compelling ad buy for ad agencies who are looking for large quantities of targeted consumers. While Chicagoist may have a few hundred thousands unique visitors a month, that pales in comparison to Tronc’s network or the vast, targetable audience available through an ad exchange.

Many other local publications are generally not doing well. The Chicago Reader was recently sold to owners of The Chicago Crusader, and their new business plan remain unclear. The Sun-Times, sold to a union-led group last year, kept most of the same business team that was hemorrhaging money in the past, and Crain’s Chicago Business has slashed its staff while the paper edition has gotten thinner almost every week.

Crain’s, as well as the once-robust Time Out: Chicago, have put a great deal of energy into hosting paid events. The local media rumor mill says these events have helped prop up earnings, but the efforts required building new infrastructure which doesn’t necessarily translate into more editorial spending. The thinning paper editions and shrinking editorial staffs bear that out.

Launching a new, local, widely-targeted publication is extremely difficult. Chicago is a big enough city that word of mouth doesn’t reach every corner quickly. At the same time, your real competition for local eyeballs isn’t other local publications, but everything global and national. A new publication is trying to steal eyeballs from The Source, The New York Times, High Times, Vox, Le Figaro, Facebook and a million other publications down the long tail.

But Chicagoist has only been closed since November 2017! Plenty of people remember and love it, right? They’ll come right back!

Maybe. Readers are fickle, and once a daily habit gets broken, they have to be given a good reason to come back. And more importantly, they need to hear about it in the first place, and decide they want to see what the fuss is about.

As a result, Mr. Bennett will really only get one opportunity to make his new Chicagoist work. Prospective readers will take one look, and then quickly decide if the new site is worth their time, then either bookmark it, or surf away forever.

This is a hard reality. Many readers have moved on and satiated their content needs with other websites or activities. Contrary to what many journalists believe, news is not part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and most news consumers are not very discerning. It doesn’t matter whether they get it from Yahoo! News, the Chicago Tribune or Chicagoist. What matters is whether or not they read something interesting to talk about with their friends and family.

So, what’s the business plan? Digital advertising is collapsing for local publications and to run events, you need a big, regular audience (A Chicagoist-Chance concert would be cool, but is Mr. Bennett willing to do that every quarter, or month?). Subscription-based publications are thriving, like The Daily Line, a political news site I founded (and sold), or neighborhood-news site Block Club Chicago.

These publications have fierce, dedicated followings that crave a specific kind of reporting. Their audiences are much smaller than ad-supported news sites. I wonder if Chance The Rapper is interested in owning a niche news site with a few thousand, dedicated but paying readers.

I’m sincerely hoping he’s not planning to turn Chicagoist into an expensive platform for his personal political views. We’ve already got that with Progress Illinois, the Illinois News Network, and One Illinois.

And then, there’s an entirely different possibility. Maybe Mr. Bennett wants to turn Chicagoist into a kind of “Players Tribune” for entertainers. Maybe he’d like to use the title as platform for something other than news. Perhaps he is thinking of creating a site about the experience of Black Chicago, a sorely under-reported topic. “Chicagoist” could mean so many things. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to what it’s meant in the past.

In any case, I wish Mr. Bennett’s new publication success. Chicago news media needs more to smile about.

Note: The original post erroneously stated the Chicago Reader had been sold to owners of the Chicago Defender. It is the owners of the Chicago and Gary Crusader newspapers.

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.

Two Guys Go: Travel Videos To Latin America

Almost two months ago my friend Darian and I flew down to Mexico City to check out the city over Memorial Day weekend. Darian work in the travel business and happens to be an expert on Latin America and I wanted to shoot some video. So we decided to make a travel video. This week, I present to you, Two Guys Go: Mexico City, the first of our travel video series.

It turns out that making a decent travel video is hard work. You need to plan logistics, research where you’re going, make sure you’ve got good shots, and say lots of witty and informative things. If you surf YouTube, most travel videos stay interesting with bikini shots and so-called “adventure travel”, but since we’re two middle-aged dudes, that’s not in the cards.

Two Guys Go is meant to be a realistic guide to travel. We go to places that aren’t typical tourist haunts and are far from “glam” travel. If you’re thinking about going to Mexico City, you could certainly do everything we did and expect to experience the city as many Mexicans do.

So, click here to watch our videos, subscribe to our YouTube channel Two Guys Go, and if you like it, tell all your friends to do the same!

Do Facebook Birthday Posts Affect Popularity?

I have a confession to make: Three years ago I stopped wishing people happy birthday on Facebook. It’s a scam to encourage “engagement” and it feels like a cheapening of the personal connections a friend’s birthday celebration should be.

And yet, every mid-June I get a micro-dose to my ego as I count up the number of greetings I get on my own Big Day, even though in recent years the number of greetings has incrementally gone down since I stopped posting Facebook Birthday Greetings (FBDG). Each year, I wonder: am I getting fewer birthday greetings than the year before because I’m not reciprocating? And, how many people are hitting me with automatic birthday greeting scripts?

Raising the Facebook popularity stakes even more: I’ve begun to wonder that since I stopped posting FBDG, has this impacted the number of people who “like” cute pictures of my son or witty comments?

After a brief perk up in 2015, my numbers have dropped over the years from 140 to 94, even though my  number of overall Facebook “friends” has remained the same. The attached graphic tells the whole story.

I’m not a terrible person. I still wish people happy birthday. I just do it with a phone call, a text or now and then, a heartfelt email. It takes a lot more effort and I can impact a much smaller group of people, but I’m not commoditizing birthdays any more. If you hear from me, its because I had to make an effort.

Americans are spending an average of 50 minutes a day on Facebook. An incredible amount, and yet, I’m betting that most of you reading this post are even more “consumption heavy” and are probably pushing two hours a day.

Facebook has become the center of our lives, whether we like it or not, and it’s changing our habits. Publishers, who once made a killing on time-killing devices known as magazines and newspapers, have found once-idle audiences are now occupied with Facebook, rather than their products. We define “friend” much more loosely now that we have hundreds or even thousands of people we follow and have incremental interactions with. And citizens around the world use Facebook for political organizing, rapidly accelerating the speed at which anti-government protests come together.

But most of all, it has made us worry about popularity, and whether or not people really “like” us. The dystopian sci-fi Netflix show “Black Mirror” summed up all Facebook fears with its “Nosedive” episode, where social media popularity rankings totally governed one’s success in life. While we’re far from this sort of thing happening, my drop in FBDG greetings certainly makes me think about it.

Yesterday, I started an experiment with an automatic posting script to post birthday greetings for every one of my Facebook friends. Unfortunately, it didn’t work (see the result below).

Other systems I’ve found that work as Facebook apps scrape up too much of mine and my friend’s user data (no doubt a honeypot scheme to collect social graph data), so I’m going to skip the automated system and do it manually.  I’ll keep at it for a year, and then see if my greetings numbers pop back up.

I’ll let you know next July how things worked out.

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.

A Time For Moderates, But Not Moderation

Where does this all end? At some point Donald J. Trump will no longer be president. Either the electorate, his health or some array of political forces will end the Trump presidency and America will have to reckon with the policies he enacted and the global relationships he forged and frayed.

To an extent unlike any other modern presidency, Trump and his media supporters have gone all-in. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson told viewers last week, “If you’re looking to understand what’s actually happening in this country, always assume the opposite of whatever they’re telling you on the big news stations. And that’s certainly the case here. They are lying…”. Meanwhile the Trump White House makes official statements with blatant falsehoods. Team Trump has obliterated any set of common facts, and has told viewers at home that anyone who disagrees with him is unworthy of respect.

And it’s working: A recent poll shows North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has higher approval among Republicans than House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. How does that make sense?

Past elected leaders have always kept in mind: At some point, I won’t be in power, so if I want my accomplishments to continue past my tenure, I need to get a super-majority of electoral support. Not with Team Trump. They burn it all down, ram it through, and proclaim conspiracy theories to denigrate their opponents.

What will happen when a new president and a different Congress want to change Trump’s policies? Will we have to endure more of the same? Will it draw blatant lies, political tar and feathering to ensure Trumpism remains in place?

Instinctually, Americans on both the left and right dread what’s to come. To protect ourselves, we are entrenching. We get our news from sources we already agree with. Those with means, are moving to communities with like-minded neighbors. The Republican Party, thrown to the right by Trumpism, may foreshadow a leftist surge among Democratic voters this election season.

Meanwhile, researchers are beginning to suspect our political conflicts have become pathological. Self-righteousness, a by-product of our Facebook arguments and comment battles, may be a form of addiction, which would be no surprise to those of us who struggle to get through family Thanksgiving gatherings in peace.

The conflicts of the Trump era force everything into sheer black-and-white contradictions. Even policies that tack against a steadfast majority of Americans are wrapped in Trump’s American flag. You don’t like family separations at the border? You must be pro-MS-13! You’d like to see Obamacare’s patient rights protected? You’re just looking to tax the little guy!

Steadily, the Trump-right is undoing the accomplishments of Barack Obama’s previous, slightly-left tenure. In response, a growing chorus of Bernie Sanders supporters vow to reinstate Obama policies, and do even more.

Inevitably, whether because morality tugs at our senses or because many Trump policies are so broken they defy the laws of physics, a majority of voters will demand a change. And then things can either get better, or much worse.

Just as in physics, every action in politics sets off an opposite and equal reaction. Our partisan-ified media lures us into thinking we can “demolish” and “destroy” the ideological opposition, but nothing could be further from the truth, as ideology only changes slowly over time, not as a result of assault by fact. Instead, global political history has shown that radical lurches to one political group only emboldens opponents to go even farther, introducing an endless cycle of left-right combat and increasingly worse governance.

If there was ever a time for moderates to rise up, this is it.

But a centrist revolt seems unlikely, as former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank once pointed out, “Moderate Republicans are the people who are there when you don’t need them.” His riposte is thin gruel however, since leftist Frank cheered the collapse of the Blue Dog Democrats, his party’s moderate wing in the 90’s.

Being a moderate is hard under any circumstances. Moderates are often mistaken as weak or lesser beings, but at crucial times they can be the flywheel of political society, slowing down the machinery before it tears itself apart. And because of who they are, moderates tend to lack the romance and dash of their right and left-wing compatriots. After all, their basic message is, “Let’s not do anything too hasty, okay?”

Whoever leads us out of this morass will be challenged with tremendous inequality among economic class, race and gender. Making it all worse, we suffer from a broad sense of distrust of the media, politicians and institutions.

Looking at how big these problems are, the idea of “moderation” seems a cop out when radical responses will be necessary to counterbalance Trumpism.

Yet, at this very moment, moderate leadership would seem relatively inviting, wouldn’t it? Bring us back to the center and calm the debate. Reintroduce a common set of facts and bring back a steady level of progress with which we can all be comfortable.

As we march in rallies, donate to campaigns and ultimately, cast our ballots to repair our government, let’s take care to remember that for lasting change, we need to bring more than just a temporary majority with us. We need to demonstrate why a new, better America will be good for all Americans, with moderation.