This piece was published as a guest column in the Cambridge Chronicle on 2/5/2016, just in time for the New Hampshire Primary:
For seven months I’ve been bicycling throughout the United States: 11,000 miles and twenty-eight states to date. Along the way I pose the question, ‘How will we live tomorrow?’ Hundreds of individuals and organizations have responded. My adventure’s not over; too soon to infer where our nation is headed. Still, I’ve asked the question enough to spot trends. The most basic one being: who actually answers my question?
Riding a bicycle is a non-scientific endeavor. I occupy a small slice of space in time. Nonetheless, I seek a wide range of answers. Every day I ask at least one random local, ‘How will we live tomorrow?’ I ask friends, friends of friends, and strangers who offer me food and shelter. I solicit interviews with organizations representative of their locale: glass technologists in Corning; Muslims in Dearborn; oilmen in Dickinson; event planners in Sturgis; cattlemen in Cheyenne; Mormons in Provo; organic farmers in Missoula; librarians in Seattle; futurists in San Francisco; retirees in Sun City; immigration lawyers in El Paso. Most people accept my invitation to participate. When I ask why they offer me their time, the universal response is, “because you’re on a bike!”
Not everyone is equally intrigued by my question. College townies love to talk about tomorrow. Most North Dakotans give me a blank stare. People of faith; Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Jews; are keen to share their vision. Even atheists are eager to respond. Most people under the age of fifteen interpret my question literally; they tell me what’s planned for the next 24 hours. Many over age 60 bemoan some aspect of community they feel has been lost. People of all ages discuss economic, environmental, and climate concerns. Tech savvy people tend to be more upbeat than computer illiterate souls. Businesses are receptive to my query; every entrepreneur has a plan to move forward, albeit skewed toward her particular market segment. Non-profit organizations thirst to share their mission.
One group, however, stands alone in resisting entreaties to talk about tomorrow. Politicians. Before I left Massachusetts, I asked every one of my elected officials: City Council members, State Representatives, Governor Baker, Congresswoman Clark, Senators Markey and Warren, “How will we live tomorrow?” Not one responded. Councilor Leland Cheung considered my endeavor noteworthy enough to initiate a Cambridge City Council resolution endorsing my journey, but he didn’t actually answer my query: a political display of form over substance.
Every elected official I meet ducks my question. I’ve posed it to all announced Presidential candidates. None of them responded. Several added me to their email lists; I now receive donation requests from every ideological slant. A Seattle resident assured me Kshama Sawant, the city’s activist councilwoman, would share her vision. She demurred. Over lunch, the Mayor of Palm Springs told me he’d get back with a response. He never did.
At first, politicians’ disinterest perplexed me. Doesn’t every candidate salivate for an unedited platform to articulate his vision? Until I realized, my question offers no upside to the world’s most tactical players. If a television commentator asked ‘How will we live tomorrow?’ in a debate, she’d be forced to cobble a response. But politicians sidestep anything substantive, even a vision, unless their back is to the wall.
Which argues the point, why ask this question? Why postulate about something we cannot control? I acknowledge that we cannot define the future. But I believe we can influence it. A vision offers a direction of where we want to go. We can work toward that vision; make it more plausible.
I’ve met many people with valuable ideas of what tomorrow might hold. But our politicians refuse to engage in the discussion. This primary season, they run all over the country asking us for our vote. Before I decide whose box to check, I’d like some answers from them.