I’ve been reminded recently of the old cowboy song, Home on the Range. You know the line, “Where never is heard a discouraging word”? That is not the United States right now. It feels like pretty much everywhere I turn, all I hear is discouragement.
Our institutions of government are paralyzed. We face serious national problems with no effective response in sight — or even, in some cases, an acknowledgement that a problem exists. We’re fighting over racism, identity, security and culture. Our political system appears dysfunctional and occasionally on the verge of breakdown.
All of this is serious. But the question we have to confront is not, “What’s going wrong?” It’s, “How do we respond?” Or, at the risk of seeming hopelessly out of step with the national mood, “How do we set about making a great country still greater?”
As always, the answer to our problems does not lie in efforts to tinker with the structures we’ve erected or the systems we’ve created. It lies in us — in the American people. Whatever our political beliefs, we share some characteristics that I think give us cause for hope.
I’ve always thought that Carl Schurz, a German-born U.S. senator from Missouri, summed up something basic about the American character when he said, on the floor of the Senate in 1872, “My country right or wrong; when right, to keep her right; when wrong, to put her right.”
Americans respect the ideals of this country. They’re devoted to those ideals — freedom, liberty, justice for all — and they want the nation to live up to them. They believe in fighting oppression and expanding opportunity, in the rule of law and making progress on Americans’ pursuit of happiness. They believe in the words of the Constitution’s preamble, “To strive for a more perfect union.”
We do not give up, and we always hold out hope that the country is fixable. Even when we believe the nation is falling short of its ideals, we’re moved not by malice or hatred, but because we want to make the United States stronger and fairer.
Americans in overwhelming numbers believe in and respect what this country stands for, appreciate the differences and the diversity that are our hallmark, and recognize those differences and diversity as a strength. This creates a remarkable degree of unity on broad goals. There is widespread acceptance of the notions that people here should have access to good health care, that we need to be good stewards of the environment, that everyone should have a fair shot at success, that voting should not be burdensome.
Americans believe in a strong national defense, that the U.S, ought to play a benign role in the world, that people of all kinds are welcome to engage in the political process, that civil liberties ought to be staunchly defended, and that we all deserve equality before the law. Our differences arise over the means of achieving those goals.
All of us also recognize that this nation has its faults — some of them deep-seated and stubborn. We believe that America can do better. But there is a broad streak of pragmatism in this country. Because of its size, diversity and complexity, it’s hard to get things done, and Americans understand this and often approach the country’s problems with sleeves rolled up.
Again and again in times of adversity, we see Americans of all backgrounds and political perspectives pitching in to help out. Americans believe in the values of hard work, the importance of family, self-sufficiency, community engagement and involvement. For the most part, they do not approve of people who incessantly and harshly criticize the country.
This is why, however dire things appear in Washington, I continue to believe that we have it within us to set the country back on a productive track. We know that in order for us to progress we all have to give something back — that with freedom and liberty comes responsibility. And when we see others stand up for the nation’s ideals and act to broaden opportunity for others, it sends, as Robert Kennedy said, “a ripple of hope” through the community that, in time, becomes an unstoppable current of change.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.