OPINION: Who left this mess?

I always feel prepared, as a mom of 8-year-old twins, to walk in and find a gigantic mess I didn’t create.

Green slime smeared on the couch. Hot-pink kinetic sand ground into the carpet. And how do upside-down footprints end up on a wall anyway?

So my friend Jim Galloway’s last column in this space, “An apology for leaving you with this mess,” struck me as a great act of chivalry to all of us, his readers, because the person who apologizes for disarray is invariably the one who had nothing to do with causing it in the first place.

But Jim was right. We’re in a mess, Georgia, and it’s not at all clear how, or even if, anyone can clean it up.

Democracy is in real danger. The Capitol siege told us that much, but I’d heard the rumblings of it on the campaign trail for years, first from factory workers in South Carolina in 2016, their jobs long gone overseas and an empty town and a Dollar General left behind.

Nobody seemed to care about them, they said, except Donald Trump.

I saw the same sense of hopelessness in a different face, an elderly Black woman in Bibb County, volunteering for Stacey Abrams in 2018, but worried it wouldn’t make a difference.

The woman had grown up in Georgia in the 1950s, but was valued so little, she said, she was offered money by the university system to go to college anywhere else but here.

“You just feel like you don’t matter,” she told me, as she described her fear that Black votes would not be counted because their votes in the state had been suppressed so many times before.

In 2012, I talked to Tea Party rebels, cleaving away from a party they said cared more about Wall Street than their own neighborhoods after the 2008 financial crisis.

Before that there were the families in 2009 crying out for health insurance, weeping at the bills that might kill them, even if the cancer never did.

They were all stories I covered as a political reporter, rooted in despair, but hopeful, in their own way, because each seemed to have an answer — either a policy that could be changed, or a bill that could be passed, or a leader who could listen and try to help.

Today’s politics feel different. People are more isolated. The language and the actions are certainly more violent.

My mind often wanders back to the two men I met in Milton this winter who were certain Joe Biden would never be inaugurated, even though he had won the November election and was weeks away from being sworn in.

And the friendly retiree in Roswell, who calmly predicted “World War III” if the election was not overturned in Donald Trump’s favor.

I’ve never lived in an America where people believe we are our own worst enemies. I still don’t believe that, but it’s clear that many do.

These are strange and dangerous times. This is some mess.

If there was any good news following the Capitol attacks, it was that the system the rioters assaulted prevailed in the end.

But of course, we all know the crisis hasn’t gone away. It’s just gone away from view, mostly.

And that’s where our leaders come in, and where, I believe, journalism and this column come in.

I was raised in Atlanta with the firm belief that journalism, politics, and democracy matter deeply. Copies of The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution rustled and snapped at the breakfast and dinner tables.

One of my earliest memories is of singing a jingle for Bo Ginn for governor with my twin sister in the backseat of my mom’s woodie station wagon. Did my parents even vote for Bo Ginn? Who knows? But I knew that jingle.

My early interest in politics led to an early start in the business, working for three senators, including Georgia’s own Sam Nunn and Max Cleland. I saw then how Georgia and the South were changing and how decisions in Washington affected nearly everything back home.

I also learned how the personalities, relationships, and individual experiences of lawmakers often matter more than most people appreciate.

With this column, I want to bring those personalities, relationships, and experiences to life for our readers. Voters deserve to know not just what their leaders are doing, but also why.

And readers deserve to know where journalists are coming from. My own opinions lean skeptical, but never cynical, and push for accountability to voters over any party.

I also believe that no matter how divisive and ugly politics become, it requires our attention because it is what holds our country and our communities together, even if it’s just by a thread.

Sometimes in life, I’ve realized that the best we can ever hope to do with the incredible mess that surrounds us is to manage it until it’s fixed.

Clean up what you can, throw away what’s broken, and learn to live well, as best you can, with the rest.