As this year’s presidential primary season began, pundits tried to account for the rising poll numbers for two candidates outside their party establishments: the Republican Donald J. Trump, who had never run for office, and Senator Bernard Sanders, running for the first time as a Democrat after identifying as an independent or minor-party candidate since he first sought office in the 1970s.
Both candidates have drawn enthusiastic followers. Their constituencies have many differences, but both groups share a dissatisfaction with the current political process and deep unease about the future. Mr. Trump has been especially popular among white working-class voters who have seen big changes in American life and now feel a loss of control. Mr. Sanders’s supporters tend to be young and new to political involvement; their issues relate to their future. What can they hope to do or to be? Where will their country be when they reach middle age? Whether the mood of either camp is more properly characterized as angry or frustrated, both camps are looking to shake up the system. And the messages of both candidates resonate with voters who are ready to push the “reset” button on politics.
Some pundits respond, perhaps condescendingly, that things are not really so bad. Unemployment and inflation are low, as are gasoline prices. The economy limps forward. Still, there is reason for the frustration and the anger, and the country can benefit from setting clear, urgent priorities for the next president and Congress. Wages are stagnant, and income inequality is growing. Upward mobility seems an increasingly elusive goal. The cost of a college education leaves graduates burdened with debt for decades. Health care costs continue to soar, and the homeownership rate is dropping. People are getting by, but they are not getting ahead.
The frustration over a lack of economic advancement is magnified when voters see an unresponsive political system and a lack of progress in our political conversation. Voters feel left out of a process that has politicians seeking and depending upon ever-increasing sums of money to attain and hold on to elected office. The big political donors, and the shadowy political action committees that generate so many campaign ads, stymie reform measures.
We do not yet know how the anger and the enthusiasm for unconventional candidates will affect this year’s election. To believe that any new president, even with the best of ideas, can resolve our most contentious issues is naïve. But we must acknowledge the legitimate fears and the near-hopelessness held by so many voters. Even if one does not share this feeling, it is out there, living among family and friends and colleagues, and it will not go away without a willingness to engage not just with the political process but with one another.
There is something commendable in the search for public officials who do get it right, who do care for the people they serve. Complacency on the part of the comfortable, expressed in a resigned “Washington is a mess, but my congressman returns my calls” helped to get us to where we are. It has prevented us from finding nonpartisan common ground on issues like campaign finance, redistricting and ways to hold longtime incumbents accountable for their records.
The Ignatian tradition urges occasional withdrawal into solitude—not to escape the world, but to learn what is really going on within oneself and within society. It does not take long to see that frustration and anger are part of what is going on in contemporary America. These emotions can be legitimate responses to injustice or feelings of powerlessness; they should not be ignored. But neither should they be given permanent status. The saturation of social media in modern life threatens to constantly turn up the anger, the perception of slights from political opponents and other people with whom we have no real contact. Voters must not simply react, one tweet or one dollar at a time, to the situation we face. We must take time to put things in perspective so that we can move forward creatively and in the context of community.
St. Ignatius’ suggestion for regular downtime finds modern counterparts. Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, advised the 2012 graduating class at Boston University: “Remember to take at least one hour a day and turn that [technology] off.... Take your eyes off the screen, and look into the eyes of the person you love.” More recently, Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., the Jesuit superior general, advised in an interview with America: “Try to enjoy silence. If you come to enjoy silence, being alone, then you will find out that you are not alone. Then you can start a conversation.” This conversation—charitable, just, action-oriented, informed by love, reflection and respect—is what our nation needs. Let us look within, then reach out and begin.