Weekly Letter: Tradition and Progress

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Tradition and Progress. Those two words are powerful, but when you put them together, a path opens. 

Before explaining what I mean by that, I have to credit the source. James Kitchin - the 2018 candidate for District 7 County Council who overperformed in a red district against a Republican candidate who set a new campaign spending record, my first-term Director of Community Engagement and Constituent Services, current Director of Special Projects, and soon-to-be Doctor in Public Policy - saw the two words together recently on a water tower while driving through Missouri.

Six years ago, James was the person who first explained to me how the Anne Arundel County tax cap actually works, what models of campaign finance reform have been implemented across the country, and lots of other complex public policy topics that I won’t get into here. 

When he told me about how struck he was by seeing those two words together on a water tower, the same lightbulb turned on in my head that had turned on in his. Here’s why.

Progress is what everyone wants, in their own lives, for their families, and for the communities they care about. It’s universal, but when used as a label - the word progressive - it’s actually limiting. We’re reminded of political divisions and open minds close.

Tradition is the opposite, but the same. We’re taught to respect our traditions, and when anyone tries to prevent us from practicing them we become outraged. But being stuck in tradition makes you a conservative, and again political divisions close minds. 

The tension between tradition and progress has divided America since its founding. It’s at a boiling point today in our multicultural democracy, with the words Make America Great Again as the rallying cry for a large group that believes its traditions are under attack.

Anti-MAGA forces are also mobilized, and while they demand that American progress continue, their most impactful rallying cry is also that we must protect tradition, the American traditions of democracy, peaceful transfer of power, and respect for the rule of law. 

In Anne Arundel County, we battle with one another over tradition and progress every day. We plan land use in nine regions, and for each we appoint a stakeholder advisory committee that makes recommendations for zoning that ultimately get approved or amended by the County Council. Throughout the process some advocate for maintaining the traditional, or current uses of land, while others encourage the progress of new infrastructure. It’s happening right now, and I’ve been impressed with the quality of debate.

Throughout the budget process each year, some advocate for the progress of new programs while others want to stick with the tradition of smaller government and fewer services. I feel good about our budget because it builds on progress we’ve made, in an incremental way that also respects tradition. 

Our Community Engagement and Constituent Services team hears from residents using both tradition and progress as justification for their positions on almost everything, regardless of their political leanings. 

And that’s what’s so magical about putting these two seemingly contrary and politically charged words together. It turns out that neither has a home in a political party, and both are values that most of us care deeply about.

Whoever painted those words on that Missouri water tower managed to tell Americans that there is a way forward, and that we do share values even in our most heated moments.

If more leaders could articulate our path forward as clearly as that water tower did, we’d really get somewhere. Thanks, James, for noticing it. 

Until next week…

Steuart Pittman
Anne Arundel County Executive