Five Reasons for Hope and Optimism

Amid all the gloom and doom, with our constant focus on what’s wrong, there are some hopeful things happening.
by | April 16, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

In college, I was a political-science major caught up in the turmoil of the Sixties, deeply interested in civil rights, the women's movement and the Vietnam war. After graduation, I worked in a youth prison, then as a social worker, then as a government auditor, and finally, before becoming director of the Governing Institute, I was a big-city mayor. Always my focus has been on what was wrong and what we needed to do to make things better.

Another plane landing safely is not something to think about. My work has always focused on the political and social equivalent of plane crashes — and how to avoid them. So you might think that I'm an angry scold. Actually, I'm a happy, misty-eyed Pollyanna, and what follows is a list of five things that fill me with hope and optimism.

1. The deliberative democracy movement. Across America, under the radar, this movement is changing the way ordinary citizens relate to their government in positive ways that give the lie to the idea that citizens are apathetic. When government officials work with citizens in an atmosphere of mutual respect and use technology and face-to-face meetings to include a large and representative slice of the population in genuine dialogue, good things happen. This movement is described in "The Next Form of Democracy: How Expert Rule is Giving Way to Shared Governance" by Matt Leighninger and in the monthly newsletter of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium. I've also seen it in action at events put on by AmericaSpeaks, a nonprofit that has used innovative deliberative tools to connect with more than 160,000 people across the country and around the world, giving citizens an opportunity to have a strong voice in public decision-making.

2. The rising acceptance of interracial marriage and the increasing pressure to sanction same-sex marriage. My daughter is going to marry a black man. He's a decent fellow, so I'm happy about this, but I thought it was uncommon. Then I saw the recent story in the Washington Post with the headline "Intermarriage rates soar as stereotypes fall." This is good. Frequent contact between people of different races reduces racism, so marriages that bring families of different races together will help remove one of the historically uglier aspects of American life.

Mountains of pain also have also been created by the suppression of homosexuality. Marriage and family are the fundamental building blocks of social order. Allowing same-sex couples to openly declare themselves as partners in relationships to which they are so committed that they want their unions to receive the approval of government in the form of a marriage license brings more stability and happiness to our communities.

3. Americans' rising and shifting health consciousness. Health care costs are on an unsustainable path in this country. But more and more of us are aware of facts like those laid out in a recent Atlantic Cities piece about diabetes, obesity and the value of purposeful walking. Much of our built environment militates against purposeful walking. Smart public officials, such as Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, who put his city "on a diet," and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who declared a goal of having the cleanest air of any big city in America, are beginning to find ways to create the same kind of energy around health outcomes that was generated around climate change and other environmental issues.

4. The Millennial Generation. "Over the next decade, the Millennial Generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged — with potentially seismic consequences for America." That's from "Millennials Rising" by Neil Howe and William Strauss. On several occasions, I've heard Neil Howe speak at Governing events about the generation born between the mid-1980s and the mid-2000s. His description of these young people matches what I have observed with my own kids, ages 26 and 22, and their friends. Generally speaking, they care about family and feel more collective responsibility. They're more interested in advancing the welfare of the group than in cutthroat competition, and, unlike us boomers, they don't especially like argument and debate. They are an extremely social generation. Thinking about these young folks fills me with hope.

5. The good politicians. During my time as mayor of Kansas City, I learned how incredibly difficult is the work of an elected official who wants to create meaningful change. I got to see quite a few of those officials up close, and my respect and admiration for them grew. Part of the mission of the Governing Institute is to recognize public officials for their good work, which Governing does through its annual Public Officials of the Year program. Part of my job is to build a network of connections among the members of this elite cadre. The work of a politician may often be dirty or nasty, and yet good people, skilled and articulate, go forth and do it every day. Under the radar, beyond the range of the talking heads on the cable-TV shows, good politicians are governing effectively. The more I get to know them, the better I feel about the future.