In his Farewell Address, President George Washington pleaded with his countrymen to give the republican government they had created a chance to work. He knew that sectional rivalries, factions, and human nature itself could drive apart those who should cherish the fact that they shared the name "American."
From my earliest memory, I have loved this country. Its history, ideals, and greatest achievements fill me with an intense pride in what it has been and can be. At the same time, I am not blind to its faults, from its subjugation of slaves to its genocide against Native Americans to the persistence of poverty. There is no perfect nation. But I have always believed that we have the capability to correct ourselves. We have done so. We still need to do so. America today is failing its future. We are an embarrassment to our grandchildren.
We just finished an election whose principal result, again, was to spend billions tearing down every candidate. Somehow we think that by attacking each other we can heal our nation. The purpose of politics, we have forgotten, is not winning elections but governing. When the votes are counted, how can those elected hope to lead when we have sown hatred and distrust in the electorate?
No sooner than election night, again, talk turned to the next election. In the permanent campaign that is politics today, more time is spent raising money than addressing the core issues that confront us. Compromise is equated with cowardice, and positions are staked out not to find solutions but to fix blame.
It would be comforting just to blame politicians, but the media are also complicit in the retreat from governing. They hype the contest of candidates, as if running for office is the equivalent of war. The media's fascination with who's up and down, and their desire for the "gotcha" sound bite, reveals an intellectual laziness and a neglect of their needed role in informing the public. They provide the spectacle of extreme partisans shouting at each other as if this was an adequate substitute for what used to be reporting. Opinion is passed off as news. At best, the media create heat without light. At worst , they feed the very frenzy that they decry and that is separating us from each other.
Big money, which means big business, wealthy individuals, and well-heeled interest groups of all political stripes, are also part of the problem. They have a Constitutional right to their views and to the access that money buys them, but money does not buy public morality, and in distorting the public councils for their own ends, no matter how sincerely felt, they put sound proofing around the voices of those without such resources.
Nor should we excuse ourselves. If we insist on only listening to politicians we like, media we like, and befriend only people who agree with us, we have created the insularity we rail against. If our politicians mirror our anger with our fellow countrymen, it is we who are rewarding that behavior when we re-elect them. If our officials and candidates take extreme views, acting not only as if they cannot find common ground but that there is none, they are representing our own mental and moral hard-heartedness. If we refuse to vote out of disgust at what politics has become, then we collude in letting the extremes define the political arena.
No one promised that democracy would be easy. Yet, from the halls of Congress to the meeting halls of America, from the Oval Office to the executive suite to the home office, from the Internet to the sound studio to the reporter on the beat, we have failed to rise to the challenge that a free people must meet.
Our elected leaders must have the courage to confront those who elected them with the hard truth that problems don't get solved with ultimatums. They must be willing to lose the next election in order to save our system and ensure our future.
Our media must have the courage to tone down the rhetoric, helping us learn rather than lambast. They must be willing to lose rating points to regain our trust and reclaim the role they need to fulfill for a vibrant republic.
Our business leaders and interest groups must have the courage to find collaborative solutions rather than demonizing those whose views they oppose. They must be willing to weaken their hold on politicians and public forums because they are endangering the very America that made them wealthy and powerful. If this means they lose some money and access, they will still have their say.
But that is not enough. We must have the courage to expand our minds, open our hearts, and accept that solutions to issues will not be perfect and that finding ways that work is more important than finding ways to win. We need to punish extremism at the polls, especially when the extremist is someone we elected. We need to turn off the radio and TV and leave the website of those who shout simple nostrums and political hate, and we need to listen to arguments we would rather reject out of hand. And we need to vote, for the surest way to get what you don't want is to let someone else do the picking for you.
One more thing. We need the courage, whether we are politicians, in the media, in business, engaged in an interest group, or just because we are all citizens, to find what is right with and about each other, to celebrate what those we disagree with have accomplished that is good, to cherish what we have accomplished when we work together. Just because there are things wrong in America does not mean there is not much that is right about America.
Will such courage cost some officials their seats in Congress, some candidates their chance to be president, some media their top ranking, some interest groups and business leaders their almost unfettered access, some of us our presumption of always being correct, not to mention some of our cherished, government-provided tax breaks and perks? Yes.
The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their "lives, fortunes, and sacred Honor" for the chance to govern themselves. Their signature meant death if they were captured, for their desire to be free was treason to the King. Cannot we take a chance as well? The price we would pay is not nearly so steep, but the payoff could be the realization of their, Washington's, and our dreams.
Most Americans, if we can trust the polls, think our country is on the wrong track. They also seem to think that someone else put us there. Washington knew better. If America is failing, it is because we are failing to be what he knew we should and could be.