I've written blogs in the past for The Huffington Post about what I've referred to as the 'Political Circus' -- the crippling partisanship and grinding gridlock in Congress that most Americans are frustrated and angry with.
In previous blogs, I've also mentioned No Labels -- a fast-growing grassroots movement of half a million Democrats, Republicans and Independents dedicated to moving America from the old politics of point scoring toward a new politics of problem solving.
In late June, I attended the Aspen Institute's Ideas Festival, where some of the great social, business and political leaders of America shared ideas on many subjects, including ideas related to what's broken in our system of governance and what steps and specific actions need, can and in some cases are being taken to improve things on behalf of the majority of American citizens.
The Aspen experience was thought-provoking and inspiring. A prevailing theme was expressed by most of the visiting speakers at the Festival: No matter which political party you belong to, we all were in agreement that something is terribly wrong in our country. Something is terribly wrong with how our elected officials are NOT representing the interests of our country. They simply don't have the will or the way to get us out of the economic and social decline we're in. The American public is yearning for leadership that simply does not exist.
Despite the prevalent pessimism in Aspen about our country's current situation, and despite the concern about the ability to deal with these problems in the short term, there was an overriding optimism about the spirit of the American people and about what has made, and continues to make, the United States a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.
Our entrepreneurial spirit, our ability to reflect upon our mistakes in an honest fashion and to correct those mistakes were all sentiments expressed. Numerous speakers cited the great potential we have in terms of our human resources, natural resources and other indefinable resources that distinguish us as a great nation.
And so what did I learn from the great leaders and thinkers in Aspen?
One consistent theme that many spoke of was that we MUST come together as a citizenry and country to work towards developing win-win solutions that transcend party lines.
There was unanimous agreement at the festival, that the Citizens United ruling, stating that corporations have the same rights as an individual, is destroying the political process. The amount of money in politics is a dangerous distortion of how the process is intended to work. We are now at the point where money wins elections, not the vote of the people.
I was struck by the fact that many inspiring business leaders, university leaders, political leaders, and citizen leaders are not waiting for government to solve our problems. Instead, they are taking their own actions to address the calamity of so many unemployed Americans and to generate jobs.
I learned that Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, upon his return to a then-financially faltering company several years ago, refused the advice of advisers to cut back on health care benefits for Starbucks employees. More recently he chose to manufacture cups in the United States even though the cost was higher than if they were manufactured in Asia or China. Schultz's discussion on how America can win this election, as opposed to which candidate will win resonated deeply for me. A recent Schultz ad campaign states, "Starting today, I invite you to share your view of America, and how we can all put citizenship over partisanship." This thought reflects the thoughts of No Labels, and the thoughts of many Americans who want our elected officials to start acting in a responsible manner.
A letter by Schultz, published in full-page ads around the country on the weekend before July 4th, calls for Americans to show the vision of the America they want to see in the future, and for an end to partisan politics in favor of pragmatic solutions to the problems that affect 99% of our population.
In Aspen I learned that Arianna Huffington is spearheading a nationwide drive to get thousands of jobless Americans employed by using the media and public pressure to get corporate leaders to start hiring now. She is working with Jeff Wiener of LinkedIn who has identified 3,500,000 jobs that are available to people with the right skills, and with the Ford Foundation to identify non-profits that need personnel, and offering grants to pay for those newly created jobs. The purpose of Ms. Huffington's plan is to address the urgency of the situation without waiting for politicians and government to stop fighting and start fixing our broken system. With a little moral imagination our business leaders can foster a sense of community that in turn results in action.
I learned that Joe Klein of TIME magazine, is championing the plight of our young veterans who return from serving our country, having risked life and limb, to find a tangled and tattered bureaucracy that offers little help or support. Joe's empathy and emotional connection was palpable.
There were so many poignant and meaningful concepts that struck deep chords within me at the Aspen Ideas Festival. One of which was, "A few thoughtful people can change the world."
I heard people speak about the importance of the human connection, and listened to the many common stories we share as human beings. Hearing these stories helps us understand what is it is like to walk in the shoes of another. Such empathy is key to successful conflict resolution.
And perhaps most importantly, the question was asked: How can we as leaders, as the economically privileged, use our wealth and our expertise to make sure these stories are told and heard, and that our imagination and empathy are turned into positive action?
And so I ponder the theme of the festival, which was "Big Ideas."
There was a genuine longing and determination among the many leaders I listened to and met at the Ideas Festival, that these 'Big Ideas' must be more then just ideas. They represent the antidotes to our nation's ailments and in many cases are being turned into immediate action to improve the plight of the unemployed, and the underemployed in our country.
Arianna Huffington is taking it upon herself to use her platform and position to create jobs. She is not waiting; she is acting. Howard Schultz is not waiting. Many concerned Americans are choosing to do the same.
Many citizens in leadership positions across the country are taking action themselves, rather then waiting for government to take action. I heard talk of "The Power of One" -- i.e., the power that each of us has, as one citizen, to make a difference.
The lyrics from a new Bruce Springsteen song, "We Take Care of Our Own", resonated during those five days in Aspen:
I've been knocking on the door that holds the throne
I've been looking for the map that leads me home
I've been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone
The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone
We take care of our own
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag's flown
We take care of our own
But do we? Do we take care of our own? That will be the test: the test of whether the "Big Ideas" of Aspen can ultimately result in us taking care of our own.
And so I left with both a sense concern and a sense of hope. Concern that our leadership in Washington lacks both civility and critical thinking needed to address the great problems facing our country.
But I also left with hope that many great Americans outside the halls of Congress grasp what needs to be done, and are not only taking actions to change the climate and process of governance, but are also making real grassroots efforts to activate and generate the positive changes our country profoundly needs.