Lee H. Hamilton
Tell me: What does it actually mean to be an American? In the press of day-to-day events and amid the ongoing tumult of politics, we don't think about this much. Yet it's a crucial question, one that each generation in this country is called upon to answer for itself. Despite our differences, there are some traits that I think we and our predecessors would recognize — characteristics to being an American that resonate with most of us, regardless of our age or our political beliefs.
It's so easy these days to despair about the future of our country.
If you take a dim view of our political parties, you're in sterling company. So did George Washington. In his famous farewell address, he warned us against "the baneful effects of the spirit of (political) party." A political party, he wrote, "agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption ..." It's safe to say he was not a fan.
There are times when I'm convinced the progress of this country can be measured through our ballot laws. Think about it. Over the course of our history, we've expanded the franchise from the sole preserve of white male property owners to most all citizens age 18 and older — regardless of race, gender or wealth. Yet, despite this steady march, we remain embroiled in debate over who gets to vote. Mostly, this is carried on in the states, with Republicans often favoring limits on access to the polls, and Democrats usually hoping to expand access.
You know these words, but how often do you stop to think about them? "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity ..."
You know the Pledge of Allegiance, probably by heart. You may recite it only occasionally, or get the chance several times a week. Sometimes, I'm guessing, you say it mechanically, and other times filled with deep meaning. I hope it's more often the latter, because here's what's remarkable about the Pledge: in a few short phrases, it lays out the fundamentals of what our country represents and strives to achieve.
I was chatting with a group of students the other day when one of them looked me in the eye and commented, "You're very tough on journalists." I had to plead guilty. Of course I'm tough on journalists. Maybe even as tough on them as they are on politicians.
Politicians and commentators these days like to point to an array of threats to our constitutional system. There's one, though, that doesn't get nearly as much attention as it should — our national debt. We may not yet be in imminent danger of fiscal collapse, but we're moving into uncharted waters. We are among the most indebted nations in the world, and it's only getting worse. Thanks to our new tax law, we're staring ahead at routine federal budget deficits north of $1 trillion each year — compared to what now seems like a paltry $665 billion in 2017.
For the most part, we Americans value expertise. We want our physicians to possess knowledge and experience. We want our lawyers to know the law inside out. We want our clergymen, our engineers, our farmers to bring the kind of proficiency and skill to their work that comes only with familiarity and practice. So here's a question. Why is it that the more expertise politicians' gain in their field, the more we deride them?
In a world riven by tension, there's one skill that stands above all others: The ability to resolve conflict. It is the paramount challenge of our time. There are so many divisions that fracture our communities, states and nations, that the ability to create common ground — to bring people together, rather than drive them apart — has become an indispensable political need.