Disunion in the union and the road to reunion
Thoughts on the state of the nation
Some of the most challenging and interesting professional encounters I have experienced in my decades of work as a clinical psychiatrist have involved couples in various states of disunion. The “container" of their relationship has become unstable. They experience more isolation and anger as the lack of communications threatens their family’s future. They seek out a professional judge to listen to their litany of complaints and hope for me to declare who is more virtuous and who is responsible for the disunity they are experiencing. These challenges to the relationship are years in the making, not easily rectified. Many of the couples I have “helped” emerged stronger having reconnected with the passions that contributed to their initial union, and experienced a relationship that is richer through improved appreciation of their differences and shared hopes for a healthier future. When communication breaks down in this way it may serve us well to consider strategies utilized in “couples therapy” to address and repair the shattering containers to enable couples to flourish once again.
It’s not unlike where we now find ourselves as a nation. We have reached a point of national disunion, when the social contract that binds us as a nation has unraveled. The federal government appears distant and unresponsive. Citizens feel isolated and angry and are contemptuous of other citizens with whom they disagree.
At this political moment where more and more Americans have lost trust in the Federal government, see each other as enemies and increasingly feel concerned about the future of the republic, efforts to engage as citizens as Americans may have the desired result of enhancing the container of our body politic. Americans are divided into multiple tribes and identity groups that seem to have nothing in common. Over the past few years, as the body politic has been convulsing with anger and nearing the fracturing of the container established by the founders and builders of our national union, I have been intrigued by the possibility of utilizing similar strategies to address our national, civic disunion.
I have found it helpful to provide a treatment plan based on a framework that re-engages the couple in a journey toward wellness. The comprehensive plan includes the following elements: establish expectations and set ground rules for safe engagement, promote active listening and empathy, stipulate each partners experience of the relationship, connect with why they chose to get together in the first place, set agreed upon activities to establish trust and problem solving proficiency and set an agreed upon action plan with “measurable outcomes” that are reviewed and updated on a predetermined schedule.
This approach is understandable in the couple context, the question is how and where to start on a national level? How can the seemingly fatally divided body politic start on a process of health, a path to reunion, what can be done to reclaim the ideals that inspired the birth of the nation? How can citizens once again transcend their divisions and help repair and enlarge the political container of our national body politic?
For me an answer came in the form of George Washington's Farewell Address to the People of the United States in 1796. Having served as president for the first eight years of the young nation, Washington was concerned about the safety of the Constitution and survivability of the eight-year- old United States. He believed that the stability of the Republic was threatened by the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation’s domestic affairs. With the assistance of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the president composed a “Farewell Address”, his political testament “to the People of the United States” designed to inspire and guide future generations as well as point to potential threats to the republic.
Prior generations of Americans had recognized the powerful counsel of our first president at another time of great peril to the United States. In 1862, recognizing the relevance of Washington’s Farewell warning about the fatal tendencies in republican government, the Constitution endangered by civil war, citizens of Philadelphia petitioned Congress that “the Farewell Address of Washington be read aloud on the morning of that day (Washington’s Birthday)in one or the other of the Houses of Congress.” Both houses agreed and assembled in the House of Representatives’ chamber on February 22, 1862. Since then the Farewell Address has been read yearly by members of congress. The reading which in the past received much public attention, has been essentially confined to CSPAN with minimal impact on our elected officials and the citizenry.
As citizens we can build on Washington’s Farewell speech to celebrate America’s origins and aspirations and to present a framework for addressing the challenges confronting our nation. Washington’s speech can acknowledge the distinct and contradictory experiences as to where we are as a nation and the ideological framework that we should follow. Recognize the yearning for values and community. Using the wise council of George Washington to the future generations of Americans, we can establish a national ritual that celebrates the Americanism that Washington spoke about. A central part of the ritual and associated public activity, we can reaffirm Washington’s call for recognizing the importance of being Americans regardless of the various, other identities we hold important that define and energise us. Washington’s Farewell speech can prompt an assessment of where we are as a nation and to develop the citizen muscle essential for a healthy body politic. Set realistic expectations for the “therapy.” Having a mutually accepted goal enables us to focus on agreed upon topics.
I invite you to consider this multi year, multi phase “treatment plan” for our disunion.
Starting the process
On September 17th, Constitution day, a public reading of Washington’s Farewell Address accompanied by a public conversation will be held at an historic institution (or online) . The event will include elected citizens representing the region locally, at the state level and nationally. The reading of selected parts provides an opportunity for individuals to share their reflections on their experience of citizenship and to identify opportunities to reclaim democratic and liberal values in our diverse society. Washington’s Farewell speech can prompt an assessment of where we are as a nation and generate dialogue as to how to return to the journey defined by shared values of being American. .
Creating a shared vision of the Union
Building on existing material associated with the vision of the United States, (our better angels) we will use digital engagement to develop a document that serves as a organizing activity that explores and celebrates Americanism based on Washington’s Farewell Address. The document is crowdsourced, collecting national documents and other artifacts of the American people.
We can share and reflect on our hallowed civic texts: Our songs and poems of freedom, Our unfinished agenda, documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg address, Martin Luther King’s speeches and others. The evolving document will provide a safe container for communications and utilize a format that includes narrative, strategies, tools and space for innovation and crowdsourcing to promote empathy, knowledge and dialogue that celebrates different opinions and beliefs.
Establishing national rituals
Rituals can help affirm the social contract established and fought for by prior generations of Americans. Many religions have established rituals that sustain them from generation to generation. (The passover Seder) as a framework for a national ritual. As a central part of the ritual, we can reaffirm Washington’s call for recognizing the importance of being Americans regardless of the various, multiple identities we hold important that define and energise us. The people of Philadelphia can initiate a civic ritual that builds on Washington’s counsel and celebrates our shared values and develops strategies that promote cohesion rather than division. The ritual, using a shared document, that is reflective of the “identity of the users” provides an opportunity for civic reflection and strengthens ties among individuals, families, communities and nations. The ritual allows for patriotic reflection and sharing of hope allowing for a more intimate sharing of common bonds.
Setting tasks and “Home Work”
Citizens across the nation can join together to discuss strategies to solve problems impacting the entire nation, and work to unite across regions and ideologies. Using a framework and format that promotes communication and dialogue, aided by digital technology, moderated by a representative non partisan organizing body, citizens can educate ourselves to counter the excitation of passions by politicians and other representatives of factions, hold political parties accountable not only during election time by engaging with them utilizing tools of active citizenship, and taking to the streets to petition the government when it doesn’t represent us. This process can contribute to better understanding the constitutional framework that is central to our body politic/ civil society. Perhaps we can focus on a social challenge for which there is wide, bipartisan agreement and work to most effectively confront it. One such challenge is the opioid epidemic ravaging the country.
Monitoring and assessing the outcomes
Current political decision making and government performance suffers from information asymmetry that marginalizes the citizen making it difficult to assess the function. To meaningfully participate in our government, it is crucial for decision making to have relevant, accessible, reliable and timely information. Additionally, the “performance” of our government is rarely discussed in meaningful ways that can enhance public engagement. What is needed is a formalized way to “track” the performance of the government along multiple relevant indicators. For example, currently the focus is on measuring GDP, an indicator of growth that doesn’t reflect the core function of government to enhance citizen well being. The Health of the Nation Initiative provides ongoing data and information that is relevant to the challenges facing our nation and the process and resources addressing them. We provide information where available and seek to create a political process to develop the needed data sources for public use. Taken together, the selected indicators reflect the overall health of the nation and the efficiency and efficacy of our political system. The data allows us to assess how we are doing and what we need to do to achieve excellent outcomes. Additionally, the initiative will explore and address the challenges of transparency, accountability and public reporting.
Many of the couples I have “helped” emerged stronger having reconnected with the passions that contributed to their initial union, and experienced a relationship that is richer through improved appreciation of their differences and shared hopes for a richer future for them and their families. Of course providing therapy in the confines of a “clinical” setting is quite different from challenges faced by a body politic consisting of hundreds of millions of individuals. At this political moment where more and more Americans have lost trust in the federal government, see each other as enemies and increasingly feel concerned about the future of the republic, efforts to engage as citizens as Americans may have the desired result of enhancing the container of our body politic. The steps suggested can serve as a treatment plan of sorts. As the plan unfolds we can test specific challenges that we face locally and nationally. Perhaps starting with addressing The opioid epidemic, a scourge that has claimed many hundred of thousands of lives in the past decade. The focus on the epidemic can help us better understand our political system and its failures, the impact of alienation, but more importantly to leverage the bipartisan support that exists to address the problems associated with the opioid epidemic, to strengthen citizen engagement in the political and social life. With your help, with your encouragement, with your dedication to a nation blessed by history, we will get the ball rolling September 17th with public reading of George Washington’s Farewell Address.