Trump is Just Part of the Problem

It’s Time for America’s Leaders to Define a Future-Focused Vision

Democratic Presidential hopefuls are quick to criticize President Trump for a host of ills, but he’s hardly the only person to blame for the current state of America.

Most of our problems have been decades in the making. As a field organizer in Florida during the 2016 election, I saw firsthand how much distance has emerged between average people and politics. Registering voters outside of gas stations and discount stores, I had countless conversations with people who refused to register to vote, uncertain of how to choose who to vote for and certain casting a ballot would have no impact on their life. A lot of people feel disconnected from the choices their elected leaders make and therefore consistently forfeit the chance to vote.

Progressive reformers often demand that government return the power to the people, but the idea that power could be “returned” to anyone belies the true history of America’s democracy, overlooking slavery; Jim Crow laws; the disenfranchisement of women, Black folks, and immigrants; the fight for legal access to abortion; mass incarceration; and a slew of other milemarkers of injustice.

The system is broken, but in many ways, it always has been.

The U.S. government was designed by white men to serve their interests and has always done so at the expense of others. Women and people of color have fought for generations to enjoy the standing they now have under the law while intentional disenfranchisement and unconscious bias consistently call these rights into question.

Last month, 2,000 democracy reformers came together for the Unrig Summit in Nashville to address the challenges of gerrymandering, voter rights suspension, money in politics and other challenges that limit the impact average people have on politics and government. The conference was 48 hours of provocative presentations, inspiring connections, and a whole lot of hope for the future. Even in the midst of so much intrigue and excitement, something was missing.

When we let the problem define the solution, we inevitably handcuff ourselves to the way things have been rather than creating the possibility of imagining something new. By focusing solely on fixing the “rigged” political system, we forgo the chance to strive for something more.

For decades, the Democratic Party has failed to offer voters a compelling vision for the future, relying on wonky policy proposals to attempt to motivate voter support. (See Hillary Clinton’s “jobs plan.”) But policy promises are a poor proxy for personal conviction. Most politicians are distant from the realities of average Americans and struggle to understand the lived reality of their voters, leading them to say whatever they need to say to gain the support of whoever is in front of them, often sparking accusations that they are manipulative and phony. Without clearly understanding what a candidate stands for, voters often decide who to support based on unconscious subjective factors. Even now as the world confronts a moment of dramatic transformation, most 2020 hopefuls are focused on specific policy promises, like universal healthcare, immigration, education, and jobs. While these solutions might be part of an ambitious presidential agenda, they fail to articulate a full picture of the future we hope to create.

In order to feel that our civic engagement has meaning and impact, most of us want to have a stake in shaping the future.

Instead of looking to candidates and senior advisors to define the solutions to America’s problems, what if we depended on the wisdom and experience of everyday people to shape the future of politics?

What if we worked together to define how we could make America a place where everyone can thrive?

The practice of Appreciative Inquiry defies deficit-based frames of “problem-solving,” instead inviting people to envision new positive possibilities that build on existing strengths. Human-centered design is a framework that allows those affected by an issue to play a role in defining how to address it.

Since my time as an organizer in Florida, I have used both approaches to increase community engagement. In Brooklyn, I helped the Vision Project bring together hundreds of people to reimagine the future of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Building on its success, I created the Purpose Power Town Hall Tour to inspire communities to use future-focused questions to define a shared vision for their collective future. (Our next town hall is in Hartford, Connecticut on May 11.)

Appreciative Inquiry is deeply rooted in human experience: How will human lives be made better by the choices we make? It is rooted in values: How do we discover the best of what is? What might be? What should be? And how do we co-create the future we hope to realize?

The Green New Deal, though imperfect, exemplifies how dramatically different positive thinking can change the mindset of politicians and voters alike. When we use our values to define a shared vision, we can build momentum toward a future possibility that defies current constraints.

To imagine how Appreciative Inquiry applies to politics, consider the case for gender pay equity. Instead of solely focusing on women’s wages being equal to men’s, what if we envisioned a future in which all genders feel supported and valued throughout their career, appreciating the importance of family alongside dignified work, which could include healthcare, childcare, paid family leave, job shares, and “retirement.” When “the problem” no longer constrains us, a host of new possibilities emerge.

Looking to 2020, we should call on political candidates to apply Appreciative Inquiry to their campaigns. Instead of focusing on the problems they hope to solve, this approach would uphold an inclusive vision — one sourced and informed by the values of the constituents they seek to serve. Engaging everyday people in structured conversations about the future is a bold and challenging endeavor, but there is no substitute for a firsthand understanding of the realities most Americans face. Such conversations have an additional benefit: They connect us to one another and our common humanity, strengthening our conviction to work together to make a better future a reality.

From this shared understanding and mutual conviction, audacious future possibility can finally emerge. Instead of reacting to the problems of our past, together we can build a new future, one that makes yesterday’s challenges obsolete.