01/24/2012 10:12 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

America's Character: A Work in Progress

In one of the recent South Carolina Republican presidential debates, Newt Gingrich railed against government intervention and in defense of conservative principles and personal responsibility. He said, "I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn someday to own the job."

Among the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, which declares our nation's founding principles, is the pursuit of happiness. I applaud the former House Speaker for making a commitment to putting those values into action through the steps he mentions. Helping to teach someone else "how to fish" is one of the noblest things one can do. I wonder, though, why he assumes that "makes liberals unhappy?"

In fact, happiness is prominent among the 12 shared values embedded in the minds of most Americans, across political parties, geographies and religions according to numerous studies, including our own Purple America survey of the values Americans share (

So instead of pandering to divisiveness, wouldn't it be healthier for our nation if Gingrich and others recognized that, while we may express our sentiments differently, there's common ground here that we can build on? Liberal and conservative lines can blur so that we can actually get something done together.

Americans, by virtue of our shared ideals, are born into a country that supports the concept of hopes and dreams and the idea that if you work hard enough and smart enough, "you can be anything you want to be." Both liberals and conservatives believe in this ideal.

Because of this, and because Americans also value success, community and equality, as well as love and respect, most Americans want there to be a path out of poverty for the poor. The proper role for government in doing so is where people may differ, but on the goal, there is widespread agreement. That's why I believe that poverty is not a liberal issue, or a conservative issue, or even a government issue. It's an American issue.

But more important than that, the point I seek to make is not about poverty, but about our national agenda. Don't we need to at least have an honest conversation about the goals we share before our nation can begin to resolve our differences in how to meet them? Isn't obfuscating our common agenda an enormous obstacle to progress, and one of the reasons why so many Americans are frustrated with politicians and government?

I'm not a big government person. I prefer that government not be involved in most things. But for that to happen, citizens have to be attentive to others' needs and do things that improve our country. Much of the time, though, citizens don't step up en mass to take responsibility for the welfare of others outside of their own family.

As long as people remain indifferent, there remains a role for limited government as the primary catalyst to build a path out of poverty. Once we agree on that goal, we should be able to go to work designing the ways to get there. Instead, we fall prey to the false notion that we disagree politically about the most basic of American ideals and that liberals and conservatives can't work together. In the process, nothing gets done.

There's a way out of this morass. The organization I work with, Project Love, has had great success working with high school staff and students to transform cultures and increase success. Once staff and students agree on their values through a discussion process, they commit to fostering a culture that nurtures those values.

The participating high schools typically agree that respect, kindness, responsibility, and success are reigning values. Then the students and teachers whittle away at the issues that interfere with achieving the desired outcomes. They establish objectives based on values, and then make them happen. In the process, the character of the individual is strengthened (a typical conservative value) and the collective good of the population is improved (a typical liberal value.) At the end of the day, who doesn't want to be successful? Who doesn't want to be kind? Who doesn't want to be responsible? It's the character of individuals and the culture and environment they shape that holds things back.

Cultures can create expectations that translate values into action. The linkage between culture and character is described by a poster I saw in a school:

Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become your character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

Across all political affiliations, conservative, liberal, the "1%" or the "99%," our shared destiny depends on what may be becoming America's weakest link: our character. We need individuals of character to lead groups and organizations that, through a domino effect, will transform our national and popular culture to one that encourages, rather than discourages, the development of character, collaboration and shared solutions.

Then and only then can government retreat and engaged citizens start to take charge.

To see the shared values that can shape our character, go to