Wednesday morning Jane Eisner, the editor of The Forward, a progressive magazine, expressed something that many people on the left feel right now:

“My daughter is crying and I don’t know what to say.”

Eisner’s voice speaks to the pain and terror that so many progressives understandably feel. But pain can’t mean paralysis. 

Progressives don’t have the luxury of allowing “What can I do?” to become a rhetorical question.

Chicago Cubs fans celebrate as one during a parade celebrating their World Series championship.

Chicago Cubs fans celebrate as one during a parade after winning the World Series.

Brandon Schatsiek/

Let’s think about two challenges that folks on the left face and what they can do about them. Call one “policy” and the other “polarization.”

Policy is the most obvious and the most immediately compelling. It focuses on national government.

The policy-based strategy depends on good old-fashioned delay and gridlock. If you can’t get the Republican administration to do what you want, you try at least to stymie the bad things it wants to do.

In effect, it means learning from Republicans, or remembering what Democrats in Congress themselves were doing not all that long ago.

Be honest. How many of you hope that the Democrats in Congress come up with a Mitch McConnell equivalent?

Obvious, but limiting. As nice as it might feel to try to give the Republicans a taste of their own medicine, it is going to be extraordinarily hard to prevent hot button unified GOP issues like the repeal of Obamacare and the appointment of a conservative Supreme Court justice (though I am willing to bet that Democrats will do everything in their power to delay the next Supreme Court appointment.)

The policy strategy does not address the polarization issue that involves a cultural change that should also have been part of a progressive agenda.

This cultural focus needs to be on our neighborhoods, our families and ourselves — on helping others. 

That’s very different, even has an archaic and old-fashioned conservative aura about it. But it has been and should continue to be part of the progressive agenda moving forward.

Here is why.

Remember way back — like every day during this campaign up until Trump’s victory — when so many people complained about the campaign’s coarseness and intolerance?

Polarization has gone too far. It doesn’t seem that anything important unites the country.

 In fact, I found myself crying during this year’s World Series, not because I was a fan of either the Chicago Cubs or the Cleveland Indians or in fact much of a baseball fan at all.

Thousands of fans at Wrigley Field singing “Go Cubs Go” together after a win, the victory parade on a gorgeous Chicago fall day, the mutual respect both teams displayed toward one another, it all showed such cohesiveness, such powerful expressions about how good things can affect friends, neighbors and family.

The 2016 election has shown our dark side while the World Series was a glimmer of light about how things ought to be.

The election was so much about how Americans differ from one another: whites versus blacks; women versus men; college-educated versus high school-educated; old versus young; optimists versus pessimists.

Of course, all elections are about difference, and polarization has an up side because it clearly highlights important and legitimate differences.

Right now, though, polarization has gone too far. It doesn’t seem that anything important unites the country. There is no rough moral consensus. There is too great a concern with identity and too little emphasis on mutual respect.

The institutions and norms that used to put a brake on polarization have failed.

A tolerance agenda is much more cultural than political, much more communitarian than identity group-oriented.

Just Get Started

The place to begin is with joint work at the local level, work that does not wish away differences but finesses differences as diverse people work toward common goals that involve helping themselves and others. Working together like this helps to create an atmosphere where people are more likely to listen to and even persuade one another.

Any community organizer will attest to the importance of this work, but let’s raise it up a notch and quote the Dalai Lama, who recently said, “Virtually all the world’s major religions teach that diligent work in the service of others is our highest nature and thus lies at the center of a happy life.”

The analyst in me likes the fact that he went on to say, “Scientific surveys and studies confirm shared tenets of our faiths. Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives.”

Another part of this repair and renewal: seek out examples of small-scale civility and understanding among people with very different backgrounds and views. Better yet, set up one of these groups yourself.

Finally, look for seemingly nonpolitical ways to bring people together; for instance, an art project where folks who show up at first share nothing but an interest in self-expression but, as time goes on, develop a deeper commonality.

This feels hokey? Well, the best way to persuade you is to sit down and talk. Not possible, so I’ll just ask this question: “What are your alternatives?”

This small-scale renewal is not an escape from politics. What Donald Trump promised his followers is an escape from politics.

In fact the rebuilding and renewal that I describe is a very profound, tough and sophisticated form of political action because it takes into consideration both the fragility and necessity of shared purposes.

“Go Cubs Go” was a shining moment, but just a moment. Yet it is also a memento.

It’s a reminder of people’s fuller capacities and the need for a progressive vision that enhances what people and communities are capable of.

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