A presidential election year creates an opportunity for a Washington Beltway ex-pat living in Southern California to have a lot of interesting conversations. Thick in primary season, hardly a day goes by without someone asking me what the heck is going on with this presidential election and why it has gone so wrong.
The answer I give isn't one most people like to hear.
We have the government and the leaders that reflect us, the electorate, and if we want things to change, we have to start by examining our own engagement with our democracy.
So what is this election saying about who we are as a nation? Three key things:
We are tired of the status quo: While most elections are about more of the same versus something different (hence the standard right-track/wrong-track question asked by most political polls) this one is significantly different. Most Americans understand that there is something fundamentally "off" when it comes to how the issues facing our country are addressed and that skewing everything to the binary, and decreasingly accurate extremes of left or right does not solve issues but only foments discord and, in some cases, even violence. In this heated environment, the candidates with the most extreme views are whipping up the most enthusiastic support - Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, because they are willing to do something even if it is extreme.
The end of the professional politician is here: As a practicing political professional for many years, I accept responsibility for being a part of the creation of the phenomenon of politics as a profession. Beginning in the 1980's, the rise of a professional political class ushered in a time when serving in office was no longer a capstone to other professional success, but became a career unto itself. This pursuit of office, and maintaining it, has become the main focus of the majority of those serving in office so that service for the greater good of the country is subjugated to personal political ambitions. Donald Trump's rejection of political professionalism is the main source of his appeal, and one that members of both party's political establishments fail to see.
Straight talk outweighs experience: Regardless of what organization, community or group in which they are involved, people are tired of those who say one thing and do another. Citizens are craving leadership that is aligned so that what they say and what they do are in sync. This is the problem so many have with Hillary Clinton, as they feel she will do or say whatever she has to to win office. Whether this is true or not, Donald Trump gets away with his trickster games because he is seen as beholden to no one but himself.
Now that the primaries are almost over and presumptive nominees have been selected, the challenge for Americans in this election is that we have narrowed our choices to: A candidate outside the system who is a wildcard willing to say and do whatever comes to mind without focus and discipline; or his opponent, a candidate so disciplined in her message that we feel no sense of who she really is. In both cases we are left with people many feel will ultimately do nothing to address the problems we face in a substantive way.
Which leads back to us--the American people. Harking back to President Obama's 2008 campaign platform, we are the answer we have been looking for. Elected officials and the professional political class will not solve our problems for us. We will have to do it ourselves. In our organizations and communities we must learn how to create change in what we accept and how we go about addressing issues where they really matter--in our backyards. If Americans accepted the mantle of individual leadership at the grassroots level, of the power to create change, we would see the dramatic shift we are longing to see--changes more meaningful and desirable than any President would ever be able to achieve on our behalf.