What do we expect from Washington? Specifically: 1) Do we as citizens ultimately want the same things from our government? 2) What role should government play and not play, in our lives?

I saw a bumper sticker the other day: “I Vote My Values.” Well, sure, lots of people do, right? And it works when we all believe the same thing. It works just great in a country that is monolithic socially, religiously, and culturally. But how well does it work in America? Because America is not that country.

America is a country at a crossroads, where our values are testing and being tested by our traditions and history. Chief among these values is a deeply held belief in every individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; a belief in everyone’s freedom of religion; and freedom from tyranny. The beauty of this crossroads is that the true meaning of these values is being held up to the light and truly examined, for many people, for the first time.

Our traditions and history, as has happened at previous crossroads in the story of America, also need to be examined so that we can preserve what is important, and know why we are doing so. Our traditions and history tell a story of a country that has been at turns deeply xenophobic and also inherently welcoming, whose members are hard workers with big dreams and also are broken and struggling. But the traditions and history we hear most often told are the ones told by the powerful majority, as is most often the case with history. That history is of hard work leading to success, and success being defined, on a personal level, as owning a home with a white picket fence, a late-model car in the garage, 1.8 kids, closets full of clothes and recreational equipment, belonging to the Judeo-Christian tradition, having a nice big flat-screen TV in the living room, and perhaps a dog or a cat. Fit this mold and you will have lived the American Dream.

And yet. America is a country of over 318 million people. 318 million. We are not a “split screen” America or a nation of two Americas. We are a nation of dozens of Americas. Americans are urban folks, rural folks, and lots of suburban folks; religious folks, spiritual folks, and atheists; market-driven folks and values-driven folks. Americans include people who seek solitude and open spaces, and people who are spooked by any place without a data connection and a good cappuccino. Americans are married and Americans are fiercely single. Americans are every shade of human skin. Americans are rich and Americans are counting every dollar until their next paycheck.

You think all these people share the same values? Absolutely not. We make different choices and have different priorities. Regardless of how lightly or seriously those values are carried, and regardless of how much someone else may disagree with them, the beauty of this country is that we are free to live the lives we want, so long as they don’t infringe on others’ rights to do the same. We don’t have to agree with each other or support every decision our fellow citizens make–we don’t even have to like each other–but we do have to respect each others’ liberty. To tamper with that is to risk our own liberty–because what happens when your values and choices are under attack and those protections are too bruised and broken to preserve your liberty?

Is there a way for all of us to live alongside one another? Our country’s founders believed so, and they laid out a road map for it in their early writings. (Haven’t read the Constitution lately? Refresh your memory; most relevant as today’s background are the amendments, the first 10 of which are the Bill of Rights. And don’t forget the Declaration of Independence.) There is a lot packed into these relatively short documents, but the vision of the society the founders imagined has an overarching theme of freedom. I’ve never heard anyone, regardless of political stripes, disagree about the importance of preserving freedom. (Americans have, though, framed “freedom” in many ways over time, which will be a topic for a future blog post.)

Besides the desire for freedom, what do our expectations of Washington have in common? Are we voting for our leaders based on a common vision of what we want America to be? I’d argue the answer is yes, and no. Most Americans want the country to be safe and prosperous, and we want good public services (clean, well-maintained roads and public spaces, clean air and water), fair taxes, and good schools for our children. Most Americans want the country to be the fabled “land of opportunity,” free from oppression and full of big dreams. But as evidenced by the two Americas described by our main political parties, we don’t agree on how to achieve that America.

In normal political times, what we would see on C-SPAN is debate and discussion about how to achieve that America. That, I will posit, is the role that government should play. The role that government should not play is to force everyone to conform to a certain set of values (except, of course, the values that are universally held–e.g. murder is bad–and that preserve our democracy). So when we “vote our values,” are we saying that we want to send representatives to Washington to enforce our own values in government? How about if we turned that around and sent representatives to Washington who would preserve everyone’s rights to have their own values, while working on the issues government is supposed to work on?  I for one look forward to the day when the government’s work is slow, thoughtful, and focused–and, let’s face it, more boring to everyone but the policy nerds among us. I look forward to a government where foreign policy, economic policy, education policy, climate change, and the like are the topics of debate. By people who understand them because they have devoted their careers to studying these issues. And I hope that when that day comes, more of us stay tuned in.

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