I am lucky enough these days to be in regular touch with young people — students — who are interested in public service. I find hope in their quality, energy and motivation, and they press me to think more deeply about what it takes to pursue a life in the public realm. In trying to answer that question, I've come to believe that at the heart of it all — indeed, at the heart of representative democracy itself — is persuasion.
Looking back at 2018's weather-related news, it seems clear that this was the year climate change became unavoidable. I don't mean that the fires in California, coastal flooding in the Carolinas, and drought throughout the West were new evidence of climate change. Rather, they shifted the national mindset. They made climate change a political issue that cannot be avoided.
The other day, a friend asked what surprised me most about politics. This may seem strange, but I'd never really thought about the question. My response was off-the-cuff but heartfelt. The biggest surprise is also among my biggest disappointments with American political life: the ongoing effort by politicians to suppress votes.
Patriotism has been on a lot of people's minds lately. French President Emanuel Macron recently criticized President Trump and other world leaders for their "us versus them" view of patriotism. "By putting our own interests first," he said, "with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values."
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.