We live in a divided country. And I don't just mean politically. Our economy is creating winners and losers, with no clear way up the ladder for millions of Americans. The last few decades have produced great inequality of wealth accompanied by unequal access to the levers of power. We're split along regional lines. We're divided along rural and urban lines. We increasingly struggle with differences of race, religion and class.
It's so easy these days to despair about the future of our country. It feels like half the people I run into just want to pull the covers over their heads and ignore the news. There's dysfunction at the highest levels of government. Recent reports — the new book by Bob Woodward and a New York Times op-ed — reveal that top administration officials are so worried about the president's impulses that they've formed a sort of "resistance" movement to thwart them.
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 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.
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..." They belong, of course, to the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. That remarkable document is not just the blueprint for our political system. Its Preamble is also a profoundly aspirational call to arms.
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.
Our republic is under stress. So much so, in fact, that if you're not worried about its future, you probably haven't been paying attention. What makes me say this? Our public discourse has become uncivil and shrill. Corruption and unethical actions by prominent politicians headline the daily news. Too many politicians make their mark by fueling division, exploiting frustration and casting doubt on our democratic institutions — and too many Americans respond by agreeing with them.
One wonders whether we can ever find the will to negotiate and compromise on difficult issues. We need leaders who can rise above the polarization and divisiveness, and instill a sense that we are all in this together. Have you already made up your mind about how you're going to vote — at least by party — in this year's important elections? I hope not.
Because we live in such tumultuous political times, it's easy to believe that today's intense public focus on the Trump presidency is something new — an obsession like none we've ever seen before. Yet to one degree or another, the president has always been at the center of the public's attention. This is because he or she is the central actor in American government. The sheer complexity of our system, with its three branches, separation of powers and competing centers of power, demands someone who can make it work.
I hope that in 2018 we can re-focus on one of the defining characteristics of being an American: that we devote ourselves to something larger than ourselves. This may seem odd, but as I look ahead to a year we all know will be momentous, you want to know what I feel most strongly? Gratitude.
It's past time for comprehensive reform of Congress, but these changes I advocate will not come about without citizen action. The first three words of the U.S. Constitution are, "We the People." The Constitution itself, our institutions of government, the democratic process — all were established to give Americans a voice in their own governance. We are still striving to make that vision real for all, but we are closer than ever.