Twice in two days I’ve heard the same thing: The most important thing our society needs now is respect—respect for ourselves and respect for our neighbors—and respect for both our own views and for those of others. This is not something that is in great supply among political leaders and pundits of our society. Mass media is the same. Both the New York Times and Fox News tend to minimize and oversimplify the views of their opponents—the Times with more style, and Fox with more dash. Perhaps we need a new political party—the party of respect. This party could forgo resentment, black-and-white thinking, and personal insults. It could embrace diversity—right and left, top and bottom—and seek answers in the gray spaces between hard lines.
I was in Chicago O’Hare airport yesterday and my flight on to Cedar Rapids, Iowa was cancelled. My two sons and I were anxious to get the grandpa’s house, so I started exploring renting a car and driving the 240 miles west. A friendly fellow cancellee named Bob Schaefer offered to join us and split the cost—and we made our decision. Minutes later the four of us had cleared Budget and were headed off across the plains in a Mercury Grand Marquee, Bob at the wheel and me riding shotgun. One boy asleep and one playing Gameboy.
Bob is a good driver, but basically it is a pretty easy drive. All four lane or better. You sort of point the car west and settle in. So we had a good four hours to get to know each other and talk. Two points are worth sharing.
First, at some point the conversation turned to politics, and Bob began talking—quite pleasantly and modestly—about the value of respect, understanding the other person, and being realistic rather than doctrinaire. And it just struck me—this is the quality (Bob has it) that makes life actually work. And it does not follow political lines, it creatively blurs them. The night before I had dinner with Lucas Welch, a former journalist and TV producer who works with me, and he had been emphasizing the same thing. Bob describes himself as a moderate conservative, and Lucas is far to the left. But they both are about the same age—Lucas 30 and Bob 33—and they both have a point of view that I am starting to attribute—positively—to this generation. Lucas’ point, consistent with Bob’s, was that we need to recast politics so that it is not just exercise in demeaning each other, but rather that we should try to use political dialog to bring out the wisdom in each other. I know this sounds squishy soft—but I think that is precisely the reason it is important to listen to. It sounds soft because we live with a high level of political cynicism and disrespect in our environment.
Bob made an interesting point about international affairs that I will try to convey-although I may not do it justice. His view is that other nations have become dependent upon the United States to do things for them: bring aid to earthquake victims in Turkey, stop a genocide in Bosnia and Serbia, deal with threats to world peace. And as we step into that role we are may be unwittingly becoming the tools of other nations who are able to gain our help. That is, while we think we are “running the world,” perhaps the world is now running us. By defining ourselves as the only superpower, and as responsible for fighting evil around the world, other nations are learning how to push our emotional buttons and get us to take over what they ought also be contributing to.
What was interesting to me was how different this was from my view of the Bush presidency—which I tend to see as out looking for places to recast using military or similar means. I think Bob would see the Bush presidency as very vulnerable to being led by its own ideology to be overly responsive when other nations come asking for help.
Well, I like exploring this idea. It brought a small shock of recognition that yes, the United States does have a new role on the world stage—and we don’t really understand this role at all. It is too simply to say—as I sometimes do—that the United States is now seeking Empire. The interesting questions are perhaps more like “given that the United States now has the means to empire, what should it best do for itself and for the world with this unprecedented power?” “What are some of the decision-making traps that might ensnare a nation caught up in its own new power?” “How might the United States best coordinate with other nations and with civil society—and get beyond either/or thinking about either going it alone or working with others?”
My own interests, obviously, are about how to build global citizen power—including the power of respect that both Bob and Lucas are pressing for. This is the second superpower project. But I think I may have become a bit overbalanced in that direction, and it was nice for Bob to bring me back to thinking about the challenges of decision making inside of the first superpower. I can use more empathy—more respect (there’s that word)—for the first superpower leaders. And also, going back to my second superpower agenda—understanding first superpower decision making needs to be a major part of the effort, particularly if second is to influence first.