What’s next?

MLK day of service, Philadelphia, 2014

For anyone who cares about fundamental American values — human equality and dignity, anti-racism, sexual equality, international cooperation, civility — this week’s election night was a stunning and painful shock. Given the rhetoric of hate and division that had fueled the campaign, we had to ask ourselves, what does this mean about the country we all share together? What are our fellow citizens expressing about their own fundamental values? Does the alt-right speak for the majority party in the White House and the Congress? And where is our country going?

One thing is clear. Now all the instruments of power are in the hands of a right-wing government that shows not an ounce of respect for the equal rights of the rest of us. These are the people who will make some of the most consequential decisions our society will face for generations. And they show no commitment whatsoever to the idea that government should serve all the people, not simply the current majority.

Civil society will need to push back in support of our central values. We need to vigorously reaffirm our core democratic commitments — to mutual respect, to civility, and to the equality and dignity of all Americans. And we will need to push back when extremist organizations and leaders invoke the themes of hatred and intolerance. This means joining together and speaking out when our most basic values and our fellow citizens are under attack. We must stand together when Muslims, Jews, Latinos, Black youth, immigrants, or poor people are stigmatized or attacked. And we will need resilient organizations — citizen-based organizations, community-based organizations, professional associations, unions, social movements — that can help to lend political influence to our voices.

Local politics will have to be part of the solution in the coming decade. State houses and governorships are largely under the control of the conservative right in most states. But the mayors of the large and diverse cities of our country are close to the realities of contemporary American life. These elected officials can be brought to understand the issues that face their constituents through direct dialogue and mobilization. Poverty, division, and inequality of access to opportunities are toxic realities in most cities, and mayors have a political interest in addressing these issues. Citizen mobilization can serve to focus the attention of local elected officials on the positive values of inclusion and respect, and these officials can have a potent national voice as well.

Cesar Chavez quote in Hart Plaza, Detroit

There is power in solidarity around a shared commitment to positive values. Young people can lead the way with vigorous advocacy for social progress and united opposition to the politics of division and hate. And these efforts can have national effect. The Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, the anti-sweatshop movements of the 1990s and 2000s, and the Occupy movements of the past decade all demonstrate the influence that mobilization can have. American culture and policies changed as a result of these movements. Perhaps the cause of the coming decade will be in support of inclusiveness and equality, and in vigorous opposition to the politics of division and hate.

This election feels like a setback for the values of civility, equality, and mutual respect in our country. This is true, not because one candidate won and the other lost, but rather because of the political messages that seem to have prevailed on behalf of the winning candidate. But there are concrete and effective things we can do as citizens to reaffirm our united rejection of hate and intolerance at every level. We are at our best in this country when we recognize the value of our diverse population and the equal value and dignity of all members of our society. Inclusion, respect, and civility are crucial for our cohesion as a society. These values can lead to the kind of grounded unity that is called for at a time of political transition. Our government exists to serve the people; and we the people have a powerful voice. Cesar Chavez got it right in the words attributed to him above. We must carry on, and for now that implies solidarity with each other in our local communities.