By Sam Reed
As we move into the 2012 election cycle here in Washington and across the country, the national polls show a great and disheartening distrust and distaste for our national leadership in Congress and the White House. Support for the federal government has never been lower — it’s in single digits for Congress — and many of our institutions are likewise under fire.
This disconnect, of course, is heightened by the public’s deep worries about the economy and their feeling that the country is on the wrong track somehow.
In my 45 years in public service and 35 years in elective office, I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and it would be easy to get discouraged. The challenges have never been greater: chronic unemployment, severe budget problems in Olympia and Washington, D.C., war and geopolitical unrest, the financial conundrum in Europe, and dealing with the practical side of this Great Recession here at home — hunger and homelessness, traffic jams, concern for our schools and universities, and more.
And at the moment when we most need our wits about us, divisions are deep, our culture is coarse and cynical, and our election politics are all too often corrosive and mean-spirited. The public mood is angry, sometimes feeling dispossessed and left behind, and certainly pessimistic about our ability to collectively find sensible solutions. We hear discouraging predictions that America is on the decline on the world stage and that somehow our glory days are behind us.
I, for one, don’t accept this gloom-and-doom and pessimism, and believe we can and will bounce back. Our best days are still ahead.
There are no “silver bullets,” but let me suggest a few simple — but profound — prescriptions to help us find our footing:
•First of all, let’s be civil. The other Washington has shown us how not to do it — how to be at each other’s throats, how to make points as harshly and as offensively as possible, how to retreat into caucus rooms and plot how to make political hay out of America’s problems.
When Congress gave itself a black eye over the debt debate and the recent failure of the deficit-reduction “supercommittee,” the public perception of a dysfunctional and polarized institution became even more pronounced. Hardened positions and incivility made a tough job even harder and public esteem dropped even lower.
Civility certainly seems like a foreign concept right now, and yet this is a real focus for me in the remaining months of my term as secretary of state and my work as a private citizen after that. I hope you will join me.
•There is simply no reason why we can’t come together and collaborate across the aisle to find sensible and cost-effective solutions to our problems and challenges. We are blessed with ingenuity, inventiveness and fresh thinking in our state — just look at the international success stories in aerospace, high-tech, merchandising, information technology, software, biotechnology and cutting-edge health solutions, for starters.
If we can persuade the world to buy a $5 cup of coffee, for Pete’s sake, we can surely deal with the problems in Olympia and our city halls and courthouses around Washington. In so doing, we begin the process of rebuilding citizens’ confidence in their government.
The conversation about civility — and disdain for outmoded and outsized government and cranky politicians — is already under way. I took part in a wonderful national civility symposium last March in Spokane, co-sponsored by Washington State University’s Foley Institute and the National Endowment for the Humanities. My office mounted a similar conference in Olympia, hoping to make our state capital a more civil place. We have the tools; do we have the will?
•All of this also applies to civility in our communities — how we discuss and decide difficult issues, how we conduct business and deal with labor, how we include everyone at the table and deal with the unemployed and underemployed in our society. That which we expect of our political leaders, we must expect of ourselves.
After more than four decades in the public arena, I believe more strongly than ever that we need to develop a sense of moderation in our politics. Both ends of the political spectrum get all the attention these days for their passion and red-hot rhetoric. Certainly we can learn from all that, even when it gets noisy and uncivil, but I don’t have to tell you that most of the progress we make in our communities and in this country is when we come together, share our ideas, pool our resources of time and treasure, and reach some sensible, practical, smart solutions.
One thing I’m talking about a lot these days is civic engagement. Our service clubs, chambers and nonprofits certainly understand this. Civic involvement, with both checkbook and personal volunteerism, is crucial as we deal with the nagging recession together and figure out a way forward.
I talk with college students about finding one thing that they can get involved in and be enthused about — volunteering down at the food bank or the Boys and Girls Club, tutoring, working in a community garden, raising money for the Race for the Cure, picking up roadside trash, painting a shut-in’s house, driving someone to the doctor, serving on a nonprofit board. The list is endless.
If this is called the “entitlement generation,” all take and no give, I’m here to tell you there’s a better way, right in front of our nose. And with civic engagement, I believe, will come involvement in the neighborhoods and the cities and beyond. Voting and paying attention to what happens. Running for office perhaps.
•Lastly, and this may be odd coming in the middle of bleak times economically, I would say we need never forget our dreams and our vision for a better tomorrow. A community, a state, a nation that stands still, stands pat, stands fearful of change, will eventually drift backward. My greatest role models were people like the Founders and Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and in more recent years, leaders like Dan Evans and Bill Ruckelshaus and Slade Gorton and Scoop Jackson.
One thing they had in common, besides brilliance and great personal integrity, was that they all had a dream and a vision to move us forward, for the common good. They were true “servant leaders” who weren’t content with the status quo, but saw a better future for us all. Progress doesn’t happen by accident. It happens with a lot of hard work, collaborating, daring, and, yes, a sense of optimism.
This is our government. This is our country. These are our institutions — schools, government, faith communities, business and labor, Wall Street, the media. We’ve all gotten banged up, sometimes rightfully so, and our institutions can stand some reform and repurposing. But all have much to contribute going forward.
We have the tools; do we have the will?
About the author
Sam Reed, a Republican, is Washington’s secretary of state. He has announced that he will retire at the end of this year, after completing his third four-year term.