Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horses,
And all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again!
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
During the 2008 election, U.S. Rep. Bob Latta, a conservative Republican from Ohio, observed, "The country is divided 50-50 and if we're going to get anything done, we need to find a way not to hate each other."
It seems the congressman's words have fallen on deaf ears. One need only consider the Republican leadership's prescription to block everything that President Obama proposed, to President Obama's block-and-tackle approach to passing health care reform, to the yelling of "you lie" at the State of the Union address, to grassroots hate-speech on Main Streets across the country.
Today Americans can no longer talk to their friends and neighbors about serious issues in our nation. The collateral damage of this divisive election is that we have lost the key to the smooth workings of our democracy -- the art of conversation.
As evidence of this rift, a recent national poll by the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, showed that two-thirds of the American electorate has disengaged from the political process and more than 40 percent are uncomfortable discussing political or civic issues with friends, neighbors or their family members. A young person recently said, "It's a major faux pas" to post anything political on your personal Facebook page. People just don't like it.
Rep. Latta's prophetic remarks ring true: in order to get anything done, we need to find a way to put America back together again. But to do so, we need each 50 percent to see that the other is not evil but offering a different solution, grounded in American tradition, that at least ought to be considered.
Like the mythical Humpty Dumpty, America sits on an ideological wall, with most Americans looking both to the right and to the left for solutions. With civil dialog, Humpty can survive and even thrive on that wall. With divisive and hateful speech, he cannot. What hangs in the balance is our ability to talk to one another, find common ground, and get things done.
The election has set some bad examples for our children. Anything goes, ethically-challenged campaigns -- supported at the highest levels of our country -- have shown our children that winning at all costs is the new normal. It is preferred to "doing the right thing." That's a huge paradigm shift.
In addition, documented lies and half-truths spouted by presidential and other candidates and their super PACs encourage children to lie. "The adults are doing it, so why not us?" the kids reason. Overlay this epidemic on the already-existing statistic that more than 75 percent of high school students cheat and we have a growing moral predicament on our hands.
The stakes of this divisive election are far beyond which party is elected. The larger issue is how it affects our culture -- how we get along, how we talk to each other, and how we demonstrate integrity. Depending on our collective character after the election, we will be able to make progress or devolve into chaos.
Moving beyond the battle, putting America back together again, cannot just involve our politicians. It must involve all citizens and leaders, working together.Recently, an Ohio pastor, the Rev. Kelly Brill, challenged her community in an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer this way:
Our political diversity is a strength, not a weakness. It isn't our position about the economy, or immigration, or foreign policy that brings us together. What unifies us is a set of values that is more foundational. In discussing those values together, we find that the things we have in common are far more significant than the things that divide us.
Our values provide the common ground through which we all can help America move toward a sense of civility, normalcy and progress. In 2008, Purple America conducted a six-city tour, asking almost 1,000 Americans, "What are the values that connect us?" and "What do Americans stand for?" The shared values that were commonly mentioned throughout the country were: Equality, Faith, Family, Freedom, Love and Respect, Self-Expression, Doing the Right Thing, Community, Giving Back, The Good Life, Opportunity, and Success.
We've heard many of these values mentioned during the election, but our candidates have favored some over others. Listen to almost any campaign speech and you will hear certain values parceled out as curt sound bites, while the candidate pledges his loyalty to certain particular values and implies or accuses the other candidate of disloyalty to the same.
Do you ever hear a candidate espouse that our foundational values are an organic whole, and that balancing them is the key to true democracy?
So since the candidates won't ask you, we ask you: What should government be involved with and why, according to our collective, foundational values? What are the limits, if any, of our freedoms, according to our values? How should candidates treat each other, according to our values? How should businesses treat their employees, according to our values? And how should we treat each other, according to our values?
On November 7th, the day after the election, starting in the battleground state of Ohio, we hope to jumpstart America to begin this process. Purple America, supported by the NEA (National Education Association), the Ohio Schools Council, Walmart and grandparents.com, will challenge 2,500 teens and educators (and then all middle school and high school students and teachers in the state) to become "nation-builders," beginning a process of healing by re-imagining America according to our shared values.
Students will be encouraged to start a conversation in their communities and to post project ideas on www.PurpleAmerica.us that show the rest of the nation how we all can shape an America built upon civility and mutual respect that exemplifies the values for which our nation stands. Afterward, Purple America will develop forums and toolkits for families, businesses, churches and media, to help reassemble our fractured nation into one that is more respectful than before.
We mirror Pastor Brill's sentiments in her op-ed piece: "After the election has come and gone, our country will continue to cry out for citizens who care enough about the greater good to find ways to reason together." Whether Republican, Democrat or Independent, we're all in this together. Values can be our guide.
Muszynski, the author of Searching for Values: a Grandmother, a Grandson and the Discovery of Goodness, is Founder of Cleveland-based Purple America; Wilson, Chairman of Purple America, is the former Executive Director of the NEA, which represents 3.2 million educators.