The unpredictable, reality show nature of our politics this year, I’ve realized, has us struggling to separate it from real life, or frustrated that it’s inundating our dinners and morning coffees and weekends. But I recently swung from angry and disengaged to encouraged and not so despondent.
Because in this country and around the world, there are things at work that do work, and they have absolutely nothing to do with the federal government or the people the majority elects to run it. Moreover, recognizing and replicating how they work will go farther than the government – than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – ever could to contribute to the American greatness they promise.
There are things that work.
I know people older and smarter than I am who are still at it. I believe in those guys. I believe in my dad, who created a business out of thin air in our garage without government help and in spite of the government’s need to pay for things. I believe in my mom, my hero and my dad’s, who raised six kids and walks out every day what grace and selflessness is. I believe in the men and women I work with and for, who wake up every morning with new ideas to fix things, to make life easier for people they’ve never met.
I know family, and community. I know the love of a man I admire and count on every day. I know brothers and sisters whose loyalty and commitment to our family is a big part of what makes it one. I know the fierce dedication of girlfriends who won’t ever let me quit.
I’ve seen and been a part of things that work.
My little sister got married recently. For my family, the day was a happy, emotional right of passage reflection celebration marking the end of something and the beginning of something else. We welcomed a new guy to our team, which is what we’ve always been, from the day my parents got married in the same church 30 years ago.
The federal government and the state of Illinois expect from my dad’s business about half its capital each year. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration thinks he’s out to get his employees. My mom thinks it’s unreasonable that people get free cell phones from the Federal Communications Commission because she bought jeans with the money she earned working at a chicken farm as a teenager.
There are things I’d like to change about government and what it does. But what it does doesn’t keep my parents from parenting their kids, from making us a team. It didn’t matter who was president when my parents set expectations, when they taught us lessons, when they showed us how to love each other.
There are battles we fight as a country. How do we protect people? How do we make health care affordable? How do we offer family and community to people here without them? How do we pay for stuff?
But we have to begin from the ground, where families start and communities grow and teams are built. Government has a role to play in a democracy, one we’re supposed to decide ourselves. But it can’t be a father, or a sister, or a pastor, or a teacher, or a husband, or a best friend.
Governments can’t give rights, only aim to protect them. They can’t create human value, only respect it. They can’t preach personal responsibility with one hand while they discredit it with the other. They can’t wake kids up for school in the morning, teach empathy, sit on the bleachers at basketball games, join a chorus of Sunday hymns, wrap their arms around someone who’s lost, pick up the phone when a daughter needs encouraging words from mom, understand the depth of marriage beyond the paperwork of filing taxes jointly.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m devastated by the outcome of this presidential election cycle. But neither party nor president can be a family or a community – they certainly can’t break up relationships that already are.
I’m not not disappointed. I’m just encouraged. Because the world doesn’t belong to the man or woman who’s inaugurated next January, and neither does this country’s future. The answers to America’s most systemic problems lie in engaged and loving parents who set expectations, respectful and loved kids to have expectations to meet, and communities dedicated to the building of families and friendships, through the kind of benevolent financial, emotional, and spiritual support the government can facilitate but not provide.
Communities and the families that comprise them do the hard work of making this country run. Years, decades from now, they will have accomplished and mourned and celebrated and tried things together, and when they look back on what they’ve been through – as mothers and brothers and wives and neighbors – they won’t remember who the president was.