Wayne D. King’s column The View from Rattlesnake Ridge: Ruminations of an Unabashed Optimist, an Environmental Patriot and a Radical Centrist, runs every weekend at InDepthNH.org. King, a former state senator who lives in Rumney, shares his art, photos and ideas with our readers.
By Wayne D. King,
The View from Rattlesnake Ridge
Despite the constant drumbeat among the media and politicians, a careful examination of the seemingly deeply divided American people will show that the differences are a mile wide and an inch deep. This is contrary to the divisions between elected officials, which appear to be deep and perhaps lasting – though lasting is a relative thing in politics.
The need to register to vote and to choose between two political parties or to remain undeclared shoehorns every American into a largely binary process that has no constitutional authority, but over time has created and assumed the mantle of de-facto authority.
Nowhere in the Constitution is any authority conveyed upon either the Democratic or Republican parties. Yet both parties act as if that authority is vested in them and use the political process to erect barriers to entry by other parties. In California alone, for example, an independent candidate for President must have 1.2 million official signatories to a petition just to be listed on the ballot.
Since each of those signatures is checked to determine whether they are registered voters, the process must actually gather about 1.4 million signatures just to make it over this high bar.
The intent of this article is not to make the case for opening up the process to permit more independent candidates for higher office – though I believe that and may address it in a future column – instead it is intended to make the case that the “deep” divisions between Americans that the media and the parties point to are artificially created by this binary choice. Where it matters most, at the risk of seeming to minimize some very important differences, we Americans are far more united than the polls would seem to indicate.
On the larger questions of the American idea, Americans are remarkably united. One need only look at the reaction to the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the President’s remarks following the events, to see that this is so. Polls conducted in the wake of Charlottesville showed Americans condemning the actions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis and President Trump’s response at a nearly 3-1 margin.
The mass resignations of business leaders from the President’s Commission on Business confirm this and would have continued had the President not stemmed the bleeding by eliminating two different business commissions entirely to avoid mass action being planned by other members. Business rarely takes such dramatic action without first holding a finger to the winds of public opinion. The President had unintentionally created a moment of national unity and reminded us – just for a moment at least – of who we are and who we aspire to be as a nation.
Just as Americans are united in their loyalty to the American idea so too are they united in their fascination with and aspirations for the future.
These two bookends provide the framework for creating a unifying American Journey; a challenge that will cajole Americans into searching their national conscience and expanding their horizons to re-imagining and re-invigorating those ideas in an era of dramatic change and equally dramatic challenges.
In his last major interview before his death in 2007, the author and social critic Kurt Vonnegut suggested that there should be a cabinet level Secretary of the Future. His suggestion was treated by most as a quaint idea by a much beloved cultural icon. But Kurt Vonnegut had not intended to be quaint. He was deeply worried about the fate of the country and the planet.
He was angered by the short-sighted politics of both political parties and he was concerned that we had lost sight of the connections that tied us together with all of the major issues in our lives and the fact that no one was helping to make those connections and helping us to re-imagine a future consistent with our values.
Vonnegut seemed to sense that our politics had been far outstripped by the pace of change and positing a cabinet level Secretary of the Future was intended to provide one way to create a formal means for looking at issues in a more holistic manner. Someone who could point out, as General Mattis did recently, that deep cuts to the Department of State would require more defense spending because less diplomacy would lead to greater conflict.
Even if our political system were not so badly broken we would still benefit from a Secretary of the Future who would be able to tackle the more thorny issues and provide some level of cover for those political leaders who have the courage to step into those waters.
The limited success in the past election of Bernie Sanders who – more than any other political leader in recent history – stepped into those waters with his calls for free public college education, Medicare for all healthcare and a $15.00 an hour minimum wage demonstrated that a significant number of Americans were not only open to those ideas but enthused by a candidate who had the courage to talk about them . . . even if they did not agree with every one of them. But politicians with the courage of Bernie Sanders are a rare breed. Most are careful, calculating, doing their best to stay – as Abraham Lincoln expressed it – “one half step behind the American people while acting as if they were leading.”
A Secretary of the future – or two such people, one representing more conservative thought and one representing more progressive ideals – would be in a position to introduce new ideas or even old ideas that have merit into the national conversation. Initially, the more cowardly members of congress would pooh pooh their ideas; but if Sanders is any indication, the American people will be more open minded and some of those ideas will take root.
I don’t expect that adding my voice to that of Vonnegut is going to make much of a difference here, and I certainly don’t see myself belonging in the firmament of icons like him; but if others lend their voices and even one candidate for President in our next Presidential Primary calls for the creation of this position, or some equivalent idea, we will have created a spark that may grow into flame.
Just imagine if we had two national thought leaders, who were highly respected, appointed to help American re-imagine their future together;
Leaders who had no personal political aspirations but deep and abiding aspirations for the country;
Leaders who have demonstrated a knack for thinking creatively and for their commitment to American ideals;
Leaders who can encourage and cajole the American people to confront our problems and challenges in new, or re-imagined ways, that inspire thinking and ideas bridging our differences where possible, and respecting them where they are deeply personal, religious or intransigent for other reasons but consistent with American ideals.
Whether it is facing the challenges of re-thinking an education system that meets the needs of a dramatic fast paced and highly automated economy, creating a healthcare system that recognizes healthcare as a right not a privilege, tackling the growing inequality of income, building consensus for ways to meet the challenges of a changing climate, or addressing the ever-growing challenges of expanding the cause of freedom and equality for all people in a diverse and dynamic country, the opportunity for us to gather around the idea of the future as a unifying American journey carries abundant promise. . . based on the premise that “where the people lead, the leaders will follow.”
About Wayne King: Wayne King is an author, artist, activist and recovering politician. A three-term State Senator, he was the 1994 Democratic nominee for Governor and most recently the CEO of MOP Environmental Solutions Inc., a public company in the environmental cleanup space. His art is exhibited nationally in galleries and he has published three books of his images. His most recent novel “Sacred Trust” a vicarious, high voltage adventure to stop a private powerline has been published on Amazon.com as an ebook with the paper edition due soon. He lives in Rumney at the base of Rattlesnake Ridge. His website is: http://bit.ly/WayneDKing