Single stories


Looking for wisdom, or even simply a few lessons, in the bizarre national political environment of mid-spring 2016 is proving daunting. At the heart of our despair, of course, is the imposition of Donald Trump by Donald Trump on the presidential primaries, like some intergalactic conqueror in control of our 1950s TV screens — the Trump described by seasonal Vineyarder Richard North Patterson in his current Huffington Post column as “the bone in the GOP’s throat which cannot be dislodged.” Given Trump’s near-total evisceration of the Republican Party, we now witness the accommodation of the party’s official and unofficial leadership to the reality that the fruits of their political cynicism and bankruptcy have visited on us, and they are left actually hoping against hope that the reviled reptile will somehow outsmart the repulsive wrestler. So goeth the party of Lincoln.

Although better by quantum measure, the contest on the Democratic Party side has had its own cringeworthy moments, owing to the difficulty Senator Sanders has had building on his impressive primary and caucus showing as a crowd-pleasing, high-performing, one-issue backbencher, and converting it into a convincing broad candidacy. Seeming to lose his footing when pushed beyond placing blame on bankers, his flirtation with shrill antagonism suggests overreaching, and in the process, that he is taking his eye off the ball — not his own candidacy, but the critical importance of denying political power to Republicans who have pandered to every dark instinct of American prejudice trying to protect their majority, and then lost legitimacy among most of their constituents as they proved themselves incapable of actually governing — thus giving the thug Trump an easy path to simply ignore them while grabbing the nomination.

A common thread running through the Republican and Democratic Party primaries is less their content (tapping into previously undetected anger and fear regarding the economy) than their messaging, or more precisely their framing. The year’s political insurgencies share the rhetorical impulse to oversimplify and to see a single idea or argument as sufficient, as David Brooks described in a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece (April 19, “The Danger of a Single Story”). Trump’s villains are Mexicans, and Sanders’ are bankers — in each case mirror-image versions of what Brooks refers to as “the alien invader story.”

Brooks rightly sees the limitations of oversimplification, the easy demonization of a class or group, the rigid orthodoxy which leaves no room for nuance and complexity, and especially no room for flexibility, compromise, and inclusivity. His critique, though, glosses over the point that single stories really work. They work because they are by design simple; they confirm our biases, they tell us what we want to hear, and in the end they grant us absolution for our laziness when it comes to political heavy lifting, while they forgive their promoters for their lack of preparation and their easy mastery of message over substance.

If single stories work for popularity contests like presidential primaries, they are a death sentence for serious policymaking and negotiation. At their heart pretty frauds, single-story politics is the “bad money” of Gresham’s Law, the cheap commodity, driving out the “good money” of serious political negotiation, shutting down any chance for progress along the way. Single-story politics depend on a preference for standoff, either to hopefully amass negotiating leverage down the road or just to delay change.

Perhaps owing to scale and perhaps to the moat effect, here on Martha’s Vineyard, we do better. Community challenges are generally met with a shared commitment to do the right thing rather than default to a single (and intransigent) story. Our combination of goodwill, talent, resources, and manageable scale, and of course the welcome absence of political parties in organizing our public life, give us a leg up in successfully addressing community problems. We have reason to feel confident that our local and seasonal resources, our well-developed institutions, and our pool of talented and caring community members will figure out how to do the right things, and with careful scrutiny, we will ultimately provide the funding needed to make the right things work.

Where the impediments are greatest, though — achieving an adequate supply of housing on the Island, most prominently — we don’t yet have a dominant constituency for sharing and solving problems and acknowledging complexity. However obvious we know the inadequate supply of housing to be, we still line up around the impediments rather than the solutions — no suitable land, an aesthetic aversion to greater density, no politically and socially accessible norms for affordability, and six towns affected very differently by both the problem and its potential solutions.

The winds of change regarding the housing shortage on Martha’s Vineyard seem to be picking up. The towns are increasingly recognizing the need to step up at the local level, and to deal with land and funding strategies to advance possible solutions. New leadership at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission appears open to a constructive role, critical given the commission’s statutory powers and potential to lead change rather than block it. And perhaps most promising, the Housing Work Group created by the All-Island Planning Board is moving along without flinching, and is now taking proposals to help prepare town-by-town and Island-wide housing production plans.

A fair housing plan has been stymied for too long by our original, founding single story — that housing means development, and development threatens preservation and conservation, and any progress coming at the cost of challenging preservation and conservation values diminishes us all. We need to create and buy into a new story — that our families, our workers, our children, our elderly, our disabled, all need us to help make housing available as a matter of fairness, and on behalf of the healthy and balanced community we want to be, and that we can achieve a fair housing plan while sharing and respecting the environment we prize.