Symposium | Halfway Home?

Winning the “Cold Civil War”

By Melody Barnes Thad Williamson

Tagged CommunityDemocracyElections

As Florida gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum shook every bush and tree to find the votes necessary to claim the statehouse, further down the ballot, Amendment 4 cruised to a decisive victory with over 64 percent of the vote. Why did Gillum and DeSantis supporters, including lifelong Democrats as well as those wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, align to restore voting rights to 1.4 million Floridians convicted of felonies?

In previous writing, we introduced the idea of community wealth building as a promising policy paradigm to challenge long-entrenched inequalities and reinvigorate the practice of democracy, starting at the community level. Our vision of community wealth building marries an explicit commitment to inclusive democracy to a practical focus on meeting community needs. Executing this paradigm requires making a commitment to civic participation, establishing bold equity goals, and taking a holistic approach to building wealth for both communities and individuals.

What happened in Florida underscores both the need for, and the promise of, this way forward. Our approach requires individuals from diverse backgrounds, working in close proximity, to engage with one another, to debate, to disagree, to build consensus, and ultimately, to build community, while focusing on the fundamentals: jobs, housing, education, opportunity. Deep and dramatic change becomes possible when narrow partisanship gives way to sustained engagement and a broader consideration of the public good.

The absence of such engagement and the understanding of “politics” as equivalent to partisan scorched-earth posturing is part of the deep backdrop that allowed Donald Trump to emerge as a political force. While Democratic control of the House of Representatives will be a significant check on the President, taken as a whole, the recent election has done little to change the overall trajectory of our stalemated politics.

Festering beneath the political divide is what some are even calling a “cold civil war.” Always present is a persistent, centuries-old refusal to accept the idea of America as an inclusive, multicultural democracy. Division and anger have surfaced as defining characteristics of our national identity—stoked by economic hopelessness, frustration around the loss of perceived American exceptionalism, and in some cases, cynicism about the democratic experiment itself. Tragically, this partisan and cultural divide characteristically pits Americans who today feel threatened by the loss of their American dream against those Americans who have never been fully or equitably included in that dream in the first place—even though all have, to a considerable degree, common interests and common concerns.

To bridge our cultural and political chasm, we must articulate and embrace a vision that more directly connects our common aspirations to public life, so that politics can once again become a tool for building better communities, not a weapon of cultural destruction. Whereas many see a nation implacably divided into Red and Blue America, community wealth building illuminates a path forward for urban communities, suburban communities, small towns, and rural areas, all facing common challenges and sharing common aspirations: to live in safe, affordable communities, rich in economic opportunity, that will lead to a better future for generations to come.

This is the approach the impressive and determined organizing campaign in support of Amendment 4 took. Campaigners showed how everyone—people of color, whites, the young, the old—suffers when some are disenfranchised. In addition to a firm moral message in favor of “second chances,” the campaign showed diverse examples of the human faces of disenfranchisement, and it demonstrated how current policies undermine, rather than enhance, public safety. A broad-based coalition thus used the power of stories and an insistence on inclusion and decency to remove a major impediment to democracy. To move forward as a nation, we will need much more where that came from.

The challenge of our time is to knit together a compelling vision that speaks directly to the concrete needs of urban, suburban, and rural communities, while emphasizing participation and engagement at the community level. We do not pretend for a moment that this process will or should be conflict-free. But in many cases, the process change can be win-win (in which everyone benefits from improved community outcomes) instead of zero-sum. We also reject “go it alone” localism. Far from diminishing the federal role, we believe federal policy must remain not only the guarantor of essential rights and liberties but must also provide a robust, well-resourced policy architecture to support community wealth building efforts.

America can no longer tinker around the edges of our grand civic challenges. Both the national results and the breakthrough in Florida only strengthen our conviction that the underlying causes of democratic decay must be met head on if we are to realize a democracy marked by the genuine expansion of inclusion and opportunity, and to invigorate our capacity for inclusive self-government.

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Melody Barnes  is co-director of the Democracy Initiative and the Dorothy Danforth Compton professor of practice at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. From 2009 until 2012, she was director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. 

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Thad Williamson is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond and author of Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of Life. He also has served as the first director of the City of Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building.

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