In the Broadway classic "Les Miserables," the hero Jean Valjean poses the ultimate question, "Who am I?" It is a poignant moment as Valjean reviews who he once was, who he currently seems to be, the power of his oppressor and what the future holds. Valjean is really questioning who he is at his core and what he is willing to stand up and speak out for regardless of consequence. Understanding what you are for is crucial for individuals, political parties, organizations, communities and ultimately countries. In today's world, it is easy to articulate what you are against, but it's far more challenging to declare what you are for.
Negative framing shapes our perceptions and ultimately our actions in so many areas. Nowhere has this become more prevalent than in the political arena. Demonizing smear tactics, character assassinations, whisper campaigns, innuendo, rumor mills and "opposition research" are all designed to negatively frame an opposing politician or political issue.
It has become increasingly difficult to determine what a candidate is for as more and more time and resources are consumed by what the candidate is against. The website fivethirtyeight.com has created a regular column on the impact of identity on politics and policy. The site recently addressed the negative framing issue.
In his June 26 column, Perry Bacon Jr. wrote, "This partisan divide is such a big part of people's political identities, in fact, that it's reinforced simply by 'negative partisanship,' or loyalty to a party because you don't like the other party." He then said, "A Pew Research Center poll from last year found that about 40 percent of both Democrats and Republicans belong to their party because they oppose the other party's values, rather than because they are particularly aligned with their own party."
Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans seem to be able to answer the question, "Who am I?" Being consumed and even defined by what they are against makes it impossible for either party to have a positive vision for moving forward.
During my time in Sen. Mike Lee's office, we regularly referenced what we called the "Boston to Philadelphia model" as a way to frame what the office was for instead of what we were against. It is a simple model. In 1773, a group of Americans had enough with King George. They were very much against the king's form of big government. What would become known as the Boston Tea Party became a clarion cry against the kind of government the colonists did not want. It turned out to be a pretty important party and a very big deal.
But had the colonists stopped at just protesting against the kind of government they didn't want, the Boston Tea Party would not have been even a footnote in history. It would have been just one more vain protest against an oppressive federal establishment.
Fortunately for all of us, the Founders pressed forward from Boston, and their protest against the government they didn't want, toward Philadelphia where they determined both what they were for and the kind of government they did want. It took them 14 long years to get from Boston to Philadelphia. In 1787, they captured in the Constitution what they were for — the kind of government they did want.
In the Boston to Philadelphia journey, the Founders, and the nation, began to answer the "Who am I?" or "Who are we?" questions.
Imagine if you asked a stranger, "Who are you?" and they launched into a verbal attack on someone they hated — spouting a litany of things that particular enemy did that were bad, awful or unacceptable. That would be ridiculous. So why do we accept the same behavior from politicians, parties and campaigns?
It is easy to figure out what a candidate is against. Imagine instead, if all the political ads on radio and television and in print were centered on what the candidate was for. Painting a picture of the principles the candidate believes and what policies those principles drive should inform our voting. As citizens, we should accept nothing less.
The further we fall into Bostonian-style arguments about what we are against, the less likely we will be to get to the Philadelphia-style vision of what we are for. We know what happens when there is no vision. It doesn't end well for the people. So, "Who am I?" "Who are we?" The answer to those questions will be the determining factor in our individual and collective future and must drive our conversations today.