How has America gotten into such trouble in every way conceivable? We ignore our astounding national debt, urban violence, race relations, women’s reproductive rights, free speech, gun rights, income inequality…the polarization is endless. What I’m trying to fathom is our general reluctance or inability to handle these complex problem. I have a clue: American exceptionalism. I find it one of the most dangerously misleading phrases in our culture Yes, our country does some things extremely well, better than the rest of the world, and Americans can be incredibly kind and generous. But our exceptionalism has become a broad brush for championing the good while ignoring the bad, a shield to hide behind when our country is criticized for its narcissism, indifference and ignorance. We rationalize that critical problems like climate change can’t be easily solved so why make the effort? "The technology will show up when it’s needed. My life is busy enough,” a friend of mine says.
We wallow in our exceptionalism, but we don’t back it up by tackling the tough stuff that requires sacrifice and stamina. Many of us don’t like “hard.” We definite “living in the moment” as something wonderful and In many ways the goal is admirable. Yet when I think about slogans with honest roots, I prefer “living for the future.” In the meantime, we are the world’s biggest back slappers. We love to congratulate ourselves, give out participant trophies, and exult in our pursuit of happiness. Like a lost tribe of dreamers, the path marked “most difficult” has little interest for us. I propose we observe a moratorium on the phrase “American exceptionalism.” If we’re going to embark on a positive future for all, how about “American wisdom.”
The earlier book, The Beginners Guide to Winning an Election, about a no-holds-barred high school political campaign, began to strike me as having more plot and characterization potential than I could have foreseen three years ago. The ability of a cunning virus to devastate cities and their economies is matched by its power to create terror, depression, and anxiety about the unknown. Meanwhile, America’s age-old struggles over racial justice, income equality, women’s rights, and affordable education, to name a few, rage on. The will to find legislative compromises has given way to stalemates, distrust, and deviousness. In addition, politics has taken on the aura and importance of religion.
My new novel, Cliffhanger, probes deeper into two, starkly different candidates in an Indiana high school election. The year is 2030. The idealism and candor of novice politician Brit is no match for her experienced, charismatic opponent, Matthew, or his shoot-from-the-hip campaign manager, Nathan.
There are good reasons never to bet against Matthew in any election, though few in the thousand-strong student body are aware of his and Nathan’s secrets for winning.
A revered and eccentric history teacher at the school has another take on the election. Without saying it out loud, for fear of ridicule, Mr. Wilson believes one of the two candidates could be pivotal in helping save civilization in the 21st Century. A 16th-century mystic and prophet, Nostradamus, predicted that in the year 2048 an elected government would deliberately create enough paranoia and anxiety to chip away at everyone’s sanity.
Years after their high school graduation, Matthew and Brit separately come to the same conclusion. As they watch their school and home town collapse in unexpected ways, they form a team for protection. A romance blossoms, only to erode from their clashing wills, but it revives when the two have to face a common enemy: An annoying kid from high school has become a leader of a new political order with chilling intentions.
In the sequel, Apostles In Black (to be published fall 2021), lessons first learned in high school politics become a map to Mathew’s and Brit’s survival.
One of the burning questions about saving our democracy is how to jump start voter turnout, no matter whether in state, municipal or federal elections.
Again, I like talking politics to near-strangers I meet. Here are some of their answers to the question above. Nothing might seem terribly new, but that’s because we’ve yet to find the political will to even experiment with change.
1. Pay individuals, starting at age 18, to register to vote. Pay them something every time they vote. In a capitalist democracy, nothing motivates like money. The federal government has just given three trillion dollars to its citizens to get the economy off life support. Good use of taxpayer dollars, I think. So is paying citizens something to insure our democracy. The payment might be in cash, or perhaps a tax deduction or credit on your income tax.
2. Impose a tax “penalty” for failing to vote—use the stick as well as the carrot. We are not “a free country.” We are a country of incredible freedoms, and they cost a lot to maintain.
3. Raise House term limits from two years (which is mostly spent on frantic fund raising instead of making laws) to four years. Keep the Senate term at six.
4. Eliminate the electoral college. This puts a nail in the coffin of gerrymandering. The popular vote should determine winners.
5. Have federal guidelines (such as time off from work to vote) to expand voting opportunities and minimize voter suppression.
6. Instead of going to a polling station, encourage mail-in ballots, allotting a full month for voters to comply, and have strong oversight of the counting process. Consider making mail-in voting mandatory.
7. Drastically limit the amount of political donations that individuals, corporations, and PAC's can make.
8. Maintain and expand media coverage of every election cycle. Shine a bright light in dark corners without being intimidated or censored.
9. Make civics class mandatory in high school.
Any of the above requires a major shake up in the status quo, arousing the ire of, well, the status quo, which has the most to lose. It takes courage to fight another civil war, especially using brains and good-will instead of ideologies. Does medicine, science, the arts, or fashion ever remain the same, let alone for 250 years? The Constitution’s best chance of survival and effectiveness is not to stay the same, either.
As a curious citizen, I sometimes ask random people how they feel about discussing their political views. Seriously. I ask them NOT to tell me their own leanings. Most won’t engage me, but some do.
I’ve put quotes around their answers; their exact wording might be slightly different, yet not in substance.
1. Male. White. Professional. “I never talk politics, even with good friends, unless I already know they agree ninety to one hundred percent with my own thinking. Otherwise you easily lose clients as well as friends."
2. Male. White. Gig economy. “I like to engage my Uber fares with any and all subjects, including politics, but they have to bring up the subject first. Too many people don’t want the stress of even thinking about politics. Others don’t seem to think about anything else."
3. Female. Latino. Waitress. “I’ve been watching the George Loyd riots on television. Protestors, yes, looters, no way. I feel our country has to change from within, at the ballot box. I intend to vote this year."
4. Female. White. High school teacher. “It’s very hard to speak about politics in the classroom, even if you’re teaching civics or history. Parents worry, ridiculously, that they’re kids are getting brain-washed. There is so much fear attached to one’s opinion being attacked. Politics and religion are the sacred cows. Why will it ever change?"
5. Female. Boomer. Retired. “Hard not to feel pessimistic after decades of polarization and how it touches everything. This all started with after 9/11, the polarization, in my opinion. I still vote because I care about my country.”
6. Male. Latino. Car mechanic. “I think we stopped being a democracy a long time ago. If voter turnout, no matter at what level, rarely exceeds 50%, you’re getting the message you don’t count, and that special interests and money control everything. Privileged white people are sometimes the biggest racists I know. But some are brothers-in-arms."
7. Female. Black. Professional. “We need a grass roots revolution. Sanders and Warren almost pulled it off. Racism needs to be outlawed at the federal level. It’s a hate crime.”
8. Female. White. High school student. “My friends are too busy or cynical to care about the political process. I’m an optimist. When things get really bad, as they are, I believe that good is around the corner. History cycles back and forth between good and evil.”
9. Male. Latino. Professional. “You have to walk on egg shells when expressing a strong political opinion. You don’t want to offend anyone. Yet, if you don’t have convictions, and express them, you’re a coward."
10. Female. Mixed race. Gig economy. “I let the candidates do the political talking. I listen and discuss at my church. I try to separate the ego-driven from those who genuinely care about issues and people in need. At my church there’s a lot of talk of candidate who follow religious doctrine. That shouldn’t be the top priority for voting."
One white knee on a black neck may prove to be one knee too many.
The police-caused death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week may be the galvanizing point for real change this November. I hope so. Racism is on the ballot. Like COVID-19, racism too is a virus, an invisible pathogen passed down from generation to generation. It can hibernate from time to time, but in four centuries, it has never been dormant for long. Please help kill this virus by voting. Please study the history of the candidates. Please turn out the noise and listen to your mind and heart. My novel, Once Upon a Lie, publlshed a few years ago, was my small contribution to insights into American racism of the Eighties and Nineties. I learned so much in writing it: The kernel of the virus is always the same. If you don’t have discussions with those who don’t agree with you what that kernel is—don’t give up. Keep talking, keep protesting without violence. Having the courage to substitute dialog for polarization may save our democracy."
With only a few days before the much-anticipated midterms, my wife and I attended a small fundraiser for a 29-year-old Latina running for a seat on the Santa Maria City Council. Gloria Soto is a political novice who, if she wins, hopes to give voice to approximately 70 percent of the population of a city sixty-five miles north of Santa Barbara, home to Vandenberg Air Force Base and lots of productive farms reliant on inexpensive labor. Most of the approximately 73,000 Hispanics in Gloria’s city perch on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The city faces a significant deficit, underperforming public schools, lack of a plan for raising revenues, an inadequate social safety net, and a predominantly while, older city council.
Gloria wants to challenge all that. She describes herself as a fighter with a dream, and as I listened to her speak, I thought of the heroine of my novel, The Beginner’s Guide to Winning an Election. My story takes places in Indiana in 2025, where politics is hostile and combative even in high schools, and my heroine, like Gloria, is a fledgling at what feels too often like a blood sport. The two young women—one fictional, one real—merge in my mind. They both run grass roots campaigns that combine instinct, courage ,and new ideas with a refusal to be dissuaded by those who tell them to quit, or wait their turn, or focus on some other future besides politics.
As a writer and, like so many others, a voyeur of American politics, I think it’s the youth that have the best chance of saving our struggling democracy. In assessing any candidate, I frown on the tyranny of ideology and agendas, and celebrate those who embrace common sense and pragmatic solutions. I want to see candidates who reject excuses for apathy at the polls, and view public service as the highest calling that a democracy can offer. Getting elected can be more difficult than going to med school or becoming a particle physicist. Maybe that’s why so many people young people shy from politics, but those who want to climb the mountain, and aren’t afraid of challenging the status quo, they deserve my support.
In 2017, I began wondering how the new political norms in Washington would filter down to a public high school election, say, in 2025. I made middle-of-the-night notes. Then I put those notes into pages. Then I made the pages into a novel. Then I rewrote the story a half dozen times… until I began to see how it could all come true.
Neither my wife nor I are psychologists, but on the subject of child and adolescent behavior, we have been middle-class parents for decades. We were determined, from our son’s and daughter’s first days of life, to be good and effective parents. Blogs and books told us to focus on love, perseverance, protection, discipline, communication, and lots more—so we did, year after year. Sometimes life went smoothly, other times were challenging. As a family, we always worked things out.
Yet, I think we all missed out on an obvious and early opportunity to build trust and solve problems more efficiently. It just wasn’t obvious at the time.
Children and teenagers are understandably self-absorbed, because each day there’s something new to question, learn, and process. We guide and discipline our kids as little or as much as we think necessary. We want them to be the best human beings they can be. What few of us do well, however, is explain to our children how theycan help us be better and happier parents.
Here are my five suggestions for amending the social contract of childrearing.
1. Parents shouldn’t hide that they’re fallible human beings, and kids should be encouraged to learn from a parent’s weaknesses and mistakes as well as their strengths. Everyone needs equal time to speak up, not just about their happiness and successes, but disappointments and problems. A five year old losing a pet hasemotionalequivalency to a parent losing a job. Learning to offer help, forgiveness and sympathy needs to be a two-way street.
2. Parents should let kids know early on that mom and dad have roles to play other than raising children. Holding a job, nurturing friendships, dealing with aging parents, taking care of their own health, handling a divorce…the list is long. The sooner kids accept that a parent may not always be around physically or emotionally, the more adept they become at solving their own problems. They also get a glimpse of what awaits them as adults, which can seem, and Is, daunting. if they go to a party school, or announce they want to live like a hedonist, remind them they still can’t escape responsibility.
3. A child giving mom or dad a hug, or even a sympathetic glance, at the end of a parent’s hard day has healing qualities It’s almost as important as mom and dad hugging their child. A lot of parents think they have to be self-sufficient authority figures, but really, they need love, too.
5. Many teens like to think that they’re two or three years older than their actual age, and in some ways they might be Don’t be reluctant to count on them if they have skills and insights that you don’t, whether they’re academic, socialization, or just common sense. Authority resides with a parent, but it doesn’t mean much to kids if you don’t have an open mind or encourage their talents. When they express gratitude to you for “being there for them,” that validation is priceless.
Forty years ago, my wife and I and our two young children embarked on a three week trip to New Zealand. We rented a small camper van and drove everywhere, amazed not just by the number of sheep, forests, rivers and snow-crowned mountains, but the steady temperament of the population. The vibe was 1950s America and everyone was middle-class. The locals never seemed in a rush. No one got upset or angry. Copacetic was the status quo. The only person I heard ever using his horn—I swear this to be true—was me.
I remember that moment well, making a right turn behind a car I judged to be too slow. I honked without thinking, from an impatience bred in urban America, I imagine. It was just a brief brassy stab, but it seemed to hang in the air for a while. Quizzical looks darted my way from nearby drivers, pedestrians, even shopkeepers, as if something was wrong. Had there been a collision, a heart attack in our family, or was my camper van in trouble? None of the above, or course. I felt like getting out of my vehicle and apologizing to everyone. Instead, embarrassed, I kept my eyes on the road and left that city, tail between my legs. I never honked for the rest of our trip.
The New Zealanders had it right. Gratuitous honking should be unacceptable. Absolutely, use your horn if an accident seems imminent, or maybe a warning to an erratic or possibly drunk driver. Otherwise, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t flinch when someone blares in his horn at them for no good reason. At the risk sounding like a driver’s ed teacher, one’s horn should not be a musical instrument, nor an emotional outlet, nor a signal that you’re late for something and you’re blaming others for slowing you down. Driving your car within ten feet of another’s bumper, blinking your lights madly until the driver change lanes, is telling the world that either you’re on drugs, have a very bad temper, or your stress level is heading to the moon. If you’re totally out of control (road rage, allegedly increasing at seven percent a year, obviously means putting more than your own life in danger), pull over for over coffee.
In a country of approximately 270 million registered vehicles (only China has more), self-control is not a luxury.
When the future eventually becomes the present, and we’re hunkered down in our self-driving vehicles, what happens then to the lowly car horn? Does the computer in my car decide when and where to use it, and how long the duration should be? If I’m in the backseat, can I override the computer if I think it’s way too horn happy? Can I finally be free to customize my horn sound, much like choosing the ring tone on my phone? Until the day comes when self-driving vehicles are truly immune to accidents, something soothing to the ear would be nice. I’m thinking Mozart.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.