Years ago, someone remarked to me that the difference between a good driver and a bad driver is a good imagination. In a democracy, the same is true of its citizens (who, after all, are ultimately the ones driving the bus).
A driver with a good imagination can look beyond the immediate circumstances to what could happen. In a residential neighborhood, a child could pop out between two parked cars, chasing a ball. A good driver proceeds slowly, “seeing” the child that isn’t there. On the highway, a car or truck just ahead could blow a tire, swerve to avoid an animal, or just suddenly and inexplicably slam on the breaks (a situation that I witnessed on a freeway some years ago). A good driver anticipates the unexpected, leaving plenty of room between vehicles. Without regular servicing, tire changes, and other maintenance, a good car could become a menace on the road. A good driver takes steps to maintain the vehicle, even when it’s running well.
Just as good drivers are deeply aware of our shared responsibilities on the nation’s roads and highways, a good citizen is conscious of the effects of government action and inaction. After all, we’re the ones who choose the leaders who act in our behalf. We hire the drivers.
Compassion is nothing more than applying the imagination to the circumstances of others. In the recent interminable health care debate, good citizens were moved by the stories about people who lost their lives, their livelihoods, or their homes because of lack of insurance or escalating premiums. Putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, they took into account the 40 million Americans who so desperately needed insurance (and will now get it). In discussing social programs, good citizens take time to consider life from the perspective of those members of society least able to help themselves—children, the poor, the disabled and mentally ill.
By the same token, good drivers are calm, rational, and realistic about the world outside their windshields. They don’t deny what’s there (like bad weather—or climate change), no matter how convenient it may be to ignore them. Good drivers know their limitations and don’t assume they know more than they do about the road ahead or what might be waiting around the next bend: if the sign says slow down, they do so, trusting that engineers and highway planners may have known something that the driver cannot. Good drivers know that they themselves don’t know everything, but they expect and demand that the experts they hire know what they’re doing.
My experience in living through the previous administration was like being a white-knuckled passenger in a car driven by an emotional driver. That driver had the power to fill all jobs involving highway safety and maintenance, and he did so regardless of the employees’ qualifications and motivation for doing the job right. All that mattered was that they displayed a suitable loyalty to the driver and his policies and beliefs.
Determined to finish his daddy’s war, the previous president didn’t focus his constructive imagination on the real problem: defeating al Qaida (which, at the time, was not operating in Iraq). Ignoring the feelings of others, he apparently didn’t bother to imagine what it’s like to drown—denying until the bitter end that water-boarding is torture. Getting richer and richer, like his cronies, he refused to pay attention to economic warning signs that the road ahead was washed out. The examples of recklessness and incompetence could go on and on.
From the time of the Revolution, Americans have tended to be distrustful of government. That distrust is built into our cultural history and maybe even our genes. After many years of irresponsible government, it’s no wonder that many people have given up all together on government as a tool for solving human problems and ensuring prosperity.
But this president is different. His administration is filled with people who have true expertise in their areas of responsibility. The vehicle is finally being maintained. Many Americans have decided that if they can’t have their old, familiar driver back—regardless of his incompetence—they’d just as soon walk.
Those of us now studying the map and enjoying the ride are thinking about the possibilities that lie ahead and what we can do with this newer, safer, well-maintained vehicle of state.