Big Problems, Small Solutions: Fighting the Politics of Despair


Dustin Messer

What hope is there for the future when we can’t even talk to one another in the present?

As communities collapse and families disintegrate, we continue to look to politics to solve a problem that’s fundamentally cultural. Today, Washington D. C., is expected to do that which can only be accomplished at HOAs and schools, churches, and kitchen tables. Maybe we’d be better off looking to what Chuck Colson liked to refer to as the “little platoons” of community more than just the big machinery of politics.

Of course, there’s always the danger of viewing the past with rose-colored glasses as some of history’s proposed solutions seemed more style than substance. Jimmy Carter was made fun of as he encouraged us to wear sweaters in the face of an energy crisis just as Nancy Reagan was mocked as she taught kids to “just say no” as the scourge of drug addiction wreaked havoc on our communities.


But, in contrast to our self-congratulatory, cynical age, those episodes remind us that there was a time in which major political figures advocated small—personal and local—solutions to big societal problems.

To understand where we find ourselves today, an episode from 2017 will be of help.

In the aftermath of the Republican’s inability to pass a “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, Senator Chris Murphy (in?)famously tweeted, “Last night proved, one again, that there is no anxiety or sadness or fear you feel right now that cannot be cured by political action.”

That tweet doesn’t just typify the politics of the Left, it also embodies today’s Right. Republicans cheered enthusiastically as they heard “their” President respond to the complex, myriad challenges facing the country with, “I alone can fix it!” And while, to be sure, the Right and the Left want different people in charge, they fundamentally agree that the solution to our crisis is political.

In this vein, Neil Postman’s prescient book Amusing Ourselves to Death only gets more important with each passing year. “What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product,” he said, “but what is wrong about the buyer.”

Substitute “advertiser” with “politician” and “buyer” with “voter” and you can see how politicians are able to capitalize on the profound isolation and loneliness of their constituencies. It must not be underestimated: modern political campaigns have become remarkably adept at identifying and highlighting societal wounds.

But is the political product being sold to us actually working? Tim Carney, whose work I’ve highlighted before, is skeptical. In short, his thesis goes like this: As we look to government to fix our problems, we stop looking to our neighbors. This leads to our continued disenfranchisement from our local communities, which only causes our problems to compound. Said differently, our political solutions are making our cultural problems worse.

Of course, some problems really can be alleviated by legislation. Whether you agree or disagree with Bernie Sanders’ solutions to our healthcare crisis, it wasn’t absurd that a Navy Vet named John looked to the Senator for relief from his mounting $130,000 medical bills.  What did take people off guard was John’s response when asked how he planned to pay off the debt, “I can’t, I can’t. I’m gonna kill myself.”

In what I see as his most humanizing moment of the campaign, Sanders responded with what the man needed in the moment: empathy and kindness. I say humanizing because we saw Sanders respond not as a representative of the State, but as a human—one person speaking to another. The sort of despair that’s defining our cultural moment isn’t irrelevant to politics, but neither is it identical with politics.

No one who watched the video of the man crying out for help is under the impression that he’s simply in need of debt-relief. Our problems are of a magnitude that only deep, interwoven relationships in the context of a community can address them. Sanders was able to offer John a personal-connection that day, but he’s only one man, he can’t comfort everyone.


In discussing politics in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes the following point that’s as profound as it is obvious: “To the extent that people share in community, there is friendship, since to this extent there is also what is just.”

We can’t expect justice where there is no friendship, and we can’t expect friendship where there is no community. So, for every minute we watch FOX or MSNBC, we should spend an hour grilling burgers with neighbors. For every afternoon we canvas a neighborhood on behalf of a politician, we should spend a week practicing for the church’s Christmas Cantata. Why? Because problems this large require solutions this small.


Dustin Messer is a theology teacher at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and a minister at All Saints Dallas and the author of Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church


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