‘When you get between your readers and a liar, the liar loses’

This was always going to be a close election. America is bitterly divided, and both sides were awake this year. My Facebook feed is full of friends who can’t understand how fellow Americans could be so blind to the stakes of what this election means for people other than themselves.

I voted for social justice, for science and competency, for the environment, and for a chance to rebuild the economy. I voted for my neighbors, the outdoors, and my family. I voted my anger at how the Supreme Court was handled, and what that means for people on the margins of our society — many of whom are friends and neighbors who receive death threats by mail or by medical bills. No exaggeration. And I don’t think a random voter in Missouri will care. I have no idea why that citizen voted the way they did. I just hope it wasn’t out of shallow mean-spiritedness.

But of course, given the last four years, the last four days, and the last four hours — how could we not be blind to each other?

Polling lulls us with ever-more-sophisticated accounts of how people INTEND to behave without factoring whether they’ll DO what they say. How does a 90% chance of victory become a 50-50% race? Turnout, spread across several voting options — all of which, by the way, seem to have worked smoothly.

It took each of us, massive participation. It’s a buck that couldn’t be passed, and clearly, it mattered now more than ever. We did it. There was record turnout, and it’s a good thing: If any of us had sat this out, it would have been a blowout for the other side.

If only it felt better.

(Photo by The Hawk/Mitchell Shields )

But I think the tone of this election was a symptom, not the problem. We’re feeling a moment marked by simultaneous turning points. One generation with different (and divergent) memories of America’s past is passing the torch to a new generation, as the demographic make-up of the United States shifts to a more diverse and urban population, and as the economy that once sustained the American Dream transitions into uncharted territory benefiting few, recommended by no one, and understood by none of us right now.

Unexamined, those moments of existential crisis create despair, desperation, frustration — all of which should sound familiar. (I liked your post about it.) But examined, the fault lines under America can provide hope and forge new connections — even spell out an exciting task list for all of us to make this divided country the place where we want to live and leave for our children.

But we have to examine them. Even before COVID isolated many of us in our homes, those forces isolated us in our communities and our experiences. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has cruelly pushed Americans into even deeper isolation.

Will we be safe? Will there be food? Will I have a future? Will my family?

I bear no ill will to people of good will. As a former journalist, I was late to form “opinions,” though I hold a few very deeply now. They’re informed by experiences that probably aren’t yours — but that probably share a lot with everyone’s.

My whole life has been about talking to everyone, and my jobs and family life drive it home. The phone calls I made to swing states the last few weeks filled in details.

My experience tells me two things: What we have now is not sustainable. And changing it will take courage and the work of a generation.

That’s a hard thing to ask right now. We’re exhausted.

And as votes show, there is no “wave” to sweep away our problems for us. It’s you. It’s me. It’s what we do next, and we have to triage:

We need to count the votes and weather the immediate emotional storm, then turn quickly to critical care for COVID and our economy, and settle into the long and generational task before us to rebuild and repair the hollowed-out middle class of our society. And we need to widen the circle to include the more diverse and urban America we are becoming.

Count the votes, and learn from them. Something this close is a message. Other things shouldn’t be open to interpretation: Wear masks to contain the out-of-control growth of COVID, so we can test and contact trace a more manageable and smaller infected population. And then get a vaccine, and then TAKE the vaccine. We need a consistent message.

I had a preferred candidate to accomplish that, but anyone can do it.

Congress needs to pass short-term economic relief for the 8 or 9 million people who haven’t just lost jobs in this mess, but who have slipped below the poverty level. That was cynical; let’s move on, please.

And then let’s build an economy worthy of handing from one generation to another. That means investing in an education system that prepares our kids for the kinds of problems they’ll have to solve, and that’s not a knife-fight of privilege for the slots connected to advantage.

Old industries don’t provide enough jobs; new industries will have to replace them. That’s incentives and tax breaks with strings attached. Our infrastructure was build for the 1950s. 2050 will look different, and it’s closer at hand. Grab a shovel.

We’ll have more mouths to feed than ever — let’s figure out how to feed ourselves and share the bounty. The world is changing and it’s worse in many places outside our borders. More people will seek opportunities from an America that’s always been defined by that. (Remember, children of immigrants?) In return, they bring fresh ideas, fresh energy, great recipes, the perfect word for what you’re feeling, and the kind of faith in opportunity that refreshes all of us.

And as things get more crowded, we’re going to have to take much, much better care of the Earth. New power? New modes of transportation? New infrastructure? Jobs. Jobs, plus clean water to fish in.

Along the way, we might just restore our faith in institutions. If we don’t trust the bank where we keep our money, the newspaper where we get our news, the neighbors who want to contribute to our community, where do we stand? Permanent uncertainty. What fixes all of that? Transparency, communication, and the courage to engage with one another. I know, because I spent 20 years in the news business, and the last and best thing I did was help connect the journalists of the Chicago Tribune with the people who read it. The result was a built-in BS detector that kept the conversation relevant and on-point. I only regret more people don’t do it, because I learned when you get between your readers and a liar, the liar loses. Every time. Institutions shouldn’t be impersonal. They’re us.

Can we do it? We put a man on the moon.

We’re Americans.

No candidate is going to do those things for us. The hero we all desperately want is us. Let’s do it, and others can come with.

We’ll have to agree together about how to do it, and how much to do, and where.  Some of those ideas will be radical, but when we actually do it, it’ll feel normal.

But where we need to go is obvious: It can’t be where we’re standing, right now.

Confidence in the election?

If we can do the next thing together, I’m confident.

If we allow America to be a zero-sum game, I’m confident we’re in bigger trouble than it seems like now.

James Janega is a former Chicago Tribune reporter and newsroom engagement manager. He now works in commercial real estate.

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