A Nation Of “No”?

I woke up Saturday morning pondering whether we had become “a nation of no.” First we designated our polarized political parties as “parties of no”—they’ve each had their stint in that driver’s seat. After a flurry of intense activity over the future of health care, we came down to nothing, nada. Nancy Pelosi pronounced this as a victory for America. It was not a victory for America. It stuck us once again in the mud of paralysis. I am pondering this morning what we have become. We can’t seem to get anything done. It’s not that we are making the wrong decisions; we can’t seem to make decisions at all.

Peggy Noonan had a wonderfully thoughtful piece in the WSJ on Saturday morning talking about real people for whom health care and health insurance really matter. That would not be all the politicians who have the extraordinary benefits that government employees enjoy. Nor would it be the people, that would be most of us, who work for organizations that provide excellent health insurance or for those who are retired and can afford to supplement Medicare. Most of us can live comfortably in the abstractions of this wonkish debate.

No, what matters here are the other people who worried about insurance before Obamacare and  worry still after Obamacare. The outcome of this debate mattered to them. These are the ones who worry whether their insurance will be rejected at the hospital they need. They worry that their premiums are going through the roof, their deductibles rising to absurd, undoable levels, the range of doctors narrowing by the day. Did the new health plan address the worries of these people? Who knows? The whole debate veered off into the stratosphere of abstraction. It seemed more about politics, grudges, grandstanding, sticking by some vague notion of promises or philosophies, entrenchments, payback. Meanwhile the worried people waited. It really mattered to them that our leaders could make good decisions. These people lost. We all lost. America lost.

I have lived by the principle that leaders must cast viable vision for an organization, a university, a church, or the government they lead. Leaders cannot bury themselves in wonkish detail and ignore the things that matter for the people they lead. We need articulated vision. It is about vision. It is about vision that stays in touch with real needs and proposes real solutions. It is about leaders who think long and thoughtfully about a big picture. What exactly is the big picture these days? Someone needs to tell us. Who are we? Where are we headed? How can we get there? If we can’t articulate these things, we are indeed a nation stuck in “no.”

This week and through the weeks ahead our media will gather around this fiasco and offer up their conclusions about what happened, who’s to blame, what went wrong. They will all slip off into the comfort of their own ideological take on things. From both the right and the left, they will gloat over leaders who were brought down. That’s a game we love, apparently. Kick em while they’re down. It is as if we gather around sacrificial lambs, scapegoats, in order to assuage our anxieties, our fear, our frustrations, our self-doubt. This is an awful mess.

We’ve got to dig down beneath the morass of detail—that’s where our roots lie. We need to discover there how we can come together to make tough decisions about what kind of a nation and world we want for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren. Sounds too simple, I know, but that’s out task. We’ve reached the limits of bureaucratic, technological, legislative abstraction. We’ve reached the limits of opposition, protest, the posture of “no.” We’ve got to dig down through the layers of wonkish debris and decide who we are as a people, together, in this enterprise called our nation. We are a  nation with real needs and real problems—we’ve got to decide first what we share in common. We have to decide if we have a common good that will draw us together. We’ve got to turn to each other, look each other in the eye, and ask: Can we do this together?

The time is both as desperate as it is ripe. But after this catastrophic failure, we are all asking whether we can pull ourselves out of the mud of paralysis and tackle the hard work of imagining something better? The jury seems to be out. We anxiously await the verdict. Meanwhile, we think hard on what each of us can do in our own little spheres of influence. Can we maybe offer up a new “yes”?