My Turn: Message of hope needed to eclipse rancor

President Joe Biden speaks to the National Governors Association during an event in the East Room of the White House, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Washington.

President Joe Biden speaks to the National Governors Association during an event in the East Room of the White House, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Washington. AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI


Published: 02-27-2024 5:20 PM

Here’s a statistic that should get everyone’s attention: The number of suicides in our country reached record levels last year.

Depression and anxiety rates are at new heights, too. A New York Times article noted that teenagers are more concerned about their mental health than previous generations.

Loneliness across the board, experts say, is worsening.

Technology, smartphones, and social media are a major reason, but there’s also something else not right. It’s our failing body politic.

“I think we thought that we could replace in-person connection with virtual connection, and it turns out that doesn’t make us happy or as fulfilled,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy recently on CNN.

At the start of the new year, Murphy and CNN’s Dana Bash spoke at length about hopelessness and isolation as a public health crisis in America.

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There’s a sense among us that our institutions are broken and dysfunctional, they said. And America’s partisan politics is the contaminant. Young Americans are particularly disillusioned by the rancor.

When leaders are not sticking up for you or not plugging into the things that matter most, that makes us feel alone, said Murphy.

“You want a champion,” he said. “You want somebody that understands what you’re going through and is fighting for you. That’s why I think we have to talk about the emotional state of America.”

Murphy is right. We need a fighter, a spark plug, and a cheerleader right now. We need hope — not doom and gloom.

In March, when President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union, he needs to speak directly to this issue, and he needs to be that champion we desperately need right now. It will be his last State of the Union before the 2024 presidential election, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

From my years of military and civil service, I know that character matters. So does integrity, humility, selflessness, and empathy. These principles have always been my compass and have guided me and my family when entering the election booth.

But if it were that clear to all voters, Biden would win in a landslide in November. A test of character isn’t enough in America today — not in this era of voter suppression and certainly not in this era of information warfare. Today, you need to own the information environment. And that’s where the president and his party, in my estimation, is lacking.

His likely opponent owns the information battlespace. We all know he’s a showman, and that’s being kind. He’s also a conman and a huckster, and he and his sycophants are rolling out every single negative campaign fear tactic and every scapegoating strategy ever employed. It’s the old ploy of dividing and conquering.

President Biden’s greatest asset is his genuine love and concern for the American people. His second greatest asset is accomplishment. The economy is doing better, and the labor market is strong. While the Republicans talk about vengeance and retribution and woke culture, Biden should focus on what he’s achieved: inflation reduction, bringing us out of the pandemic, and investing in infrastructure.

The Democrats won in 2020 in repudiation of Donald Trump, but many of us thought Biden would be the bridge to get us to a more youthful successor in 2024. But that isn’t happening. Yes, age is a factor — for both Trump and Biden. I’ll take Biden’s physical and mental health and fitness any day over Trump’s. And Biden has a clear advantage with young people.

Which is why the “Fight for Our Freedoms College Tour,” led by Vice President Kamala Harris, is such a great idea. Launched in the fall, she is visiting college campuses and engaging young students, asking questions, and enlisting their support. We need more such high-energy and large-scale events. We need to see enthusiasm and vigor where young leadership speaks to the issues that resonate with them and their future: abortion rights, climate change, and gun violence are at the top of the list.

I wish I could wave a magic wand, and “poof,” everyone would drop their smartphones and would stop attacking one another. With fortitude and common sense, we’d all vote. We’d all say no to hate and fascism. But that fairy dust doesn’t exist. Winning in 2024 will take hard work. It will take mobilization and leadership.

There are many reasons for people to feel discouraged. The threat of burnout and feeling overwhelmed is ubiquitous. I feel it. If you didn’t feel it yourself, I’d say that’s not normal. But there is also a yearning, I believe, for people to feel connected to one another and for finding community.

Have we reached a point where action is needed? Yes. Let’s stop the doomscrolling and let’s roll up our sleeves. For President Biden and his State of the Union, I want him to lay out a plan to get us out of these doldrums. Activism — that’s what keeps my optimism alive.

John Paradis is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He lives in Florence.