Climate change, falling life expectancy, rising wealth inequality, the opiate epidemic, and year after year of climbing healthcare costs. These are just a handful of the challenging national issues in the United States. We talk about them, and we talk around them. We argue about fault and point fingers, but are we solving any of them?
All of these issues have been addressed in some way in other developed countries. The menu of tools and tested solutions are available, and the majority of the folks in the United States would like each of these to be improved or resolved. What is holding us back? Why is the U.S. falling behind on multiple metrics related to public health, the environment, and quality of life? Rather than lagging behind we could be leading, but first we need to catch up.
It seems like the biggest issue we are facing is division. Certain folks, countries, and corporations benefit and profit from division and resultant government inaction. The rich get even richer, like Cigna healthcare CEO David Cordani taking home $91 million in 2021, while the rest of the country was suffering and recovering from a deadly pandemic. Similarly, the fossil fuel companies pushing against vehicle efficiency standards are raking in record profits. I’ll bet they are chuckling about the gas guzzlers their lobbying has larded into the marketplace and driveways across the nation.
What can we do? We can find common ground for the majority of reasonable people and we can work together. Rather than infighting on details, we can dig down to the core tenets of our shared goals and values. Researching what has worked elsewhere is a great place to start after that. Some of the solutions to these challenges require budgeting, but collectively we know the most wealthy need to be paying more into our country’s future.
Groups should form coalitions and recognize that these big issues are usually interconnected. In 2021, I was lucky enough to work with a wide coalition of grassroots groups, established organizations, activists, legislators, local leaders, and everyday voters on the Clean Air and Climate Bill, SB-4 (and here is the bill that passed). That bill went from zero to passage in one short legislative session in Connecticut – in part because of the depth and breadth of the supporting coalition. Even though the bill was primarily focused on transportation, the coalition included housing, public health, economic / racial justice, and affordable energy groups because they know that transportation investments are intimately connected with our lives and family budgets.
Voters, residents, and youth should be involved in the process. Networking dinners, community picnics, panel discussions, and active social media campaigns are important tools in the process. Engage those diverse organizations and expert speakers from the coalition and continually invite others to join in the movement at whatever level they can, from just getting onto an email list to becoming a recognized coalition member. When you have panels or speakers, review them in the planning stage to make sure they reflect or exceed the diversity of your coalition and affected community members.
Policy work can be boring at the detailed stage, but there are all sorts of socially interesting levels that engage everyday folks. Our neighbors care about untenable health care costs. They care about treating addiction. Rising summer heat is a very accessible topic of conversation. Do not underestimate the importance of community and social organizing around these big issues. Policy wonks will not solve these issues in a vacuum.
Do not let your policy makers, state departments, and elected leaders focus narrowly or just talk about hot button issues with simplistic talking points. Ask publicly about these big picture issues at events, radio show appearances, and via social media. Make them talk about the connectedness of the issues and ask how they are working at their level to incorporate best practices from other cities, countries, and regions. If you have a single-issue politician or someone working on an extremist issue, see if they have a challenger in the primary or general election. You may want to get involved in their challenger’s campaign or outreach. The status quo is not working, so the protectors of the status quo either need to adapt or take a hike.
The reasonable majority must engage and stitch our regions, states, and nation back together before divisive extremism drags us further from the shared goals of a health, happy, and sustainable society. We can do this. Together.