“…this occasion should cause us to reflect on disturbing trends in our political discourse: the coarsening tone, the appeal to divisions, and rhetoric that demeans government to such an extreme degree that its dysfunction is all but inevitable."
It is neither the theatrics nor even the immediate politics that are the greatest source of concern. Rather, this occasion should cause us to reflect on disturbing trends in our political discourse: the coarsening tone, the appeal to divisions, and rhetoric that demeans government to such an extreme degree that its dysfunction is all but inevitable. These trends did not begin with the current presidential campaign, but it surely has accelerated them.
So much has been written about the campaign’s caustic tenor that there is little I can add. Civility is important, and its absence impairs public understanding, but it is actually the least damaging of the campaign’s negative aspects. Far more destructive are the appeals to societal divisions and to anti-government animus.
Diversity is an American strength, and it is also a fact. Rapid demographic change is making this ever more clear. Failing to open the opportunities of this society is self-defeating, dangerous and immoral. Yet a conspicuous feature of this year has been an ugly strain of political speech that both divides and targets some of the most vulnerable among us. Such language periodically has gained prominence throughout American history, and it has aided and defended some of our very worst national errors. When it appears, people of goodwill must speak out against it. Accommodating it is tantamount to endorsement.
Divisive appeals also corrode democracy itself because government performs the tasks that we decide must be done collectively. It is entirely appropriate to debate what that work should be and, indeed, that quarrel over the proper size, structure and role of government is embedded in our national character. But the demonization of government itself is a fairly recent phenomenon. And it is unworthy of us. How can we treasure living in a democracy and yet sweepingly denigrate the very institutions where public policy debates largely occur?
We must somehow find a way to restore sufficient common purpose to tackle the many issues that demand our response, a few of which are: climate change, poverty, education, infrastructure, national security. It seems axiomatic that a dysfunctional government cannot adequately respond to these challenges. Yet dysfunction is what we get when name-calling replaces conversation, when exclusion of some groups is a deliberate strategy and when government itself is portrayed as illegitimate.
American government is complicated. Features such as the separation of powers, the federalist system and indirect democracy combine to require genuine skill at governing in order to accomplish anything. The ability to build coalitions across boundaries is essential, but that talent is afforded scant value in today’s climate. Many of our political leaders would do well to learn from the experience of the nonprofit sector.
Our Foundation is part of a growing number that strongly encourage our nonprofit grantees to exercise their legal rights to engage with government in many ways – by promoting voter registration and education, by advocating policies that advance their work, by developing relationships with policy makers at all levels. More and more nonprofits and foundations, including ours, work regularly with the public and private sectors on issues of common concern, and this experience gives our sector a particularly useful role. The nonprofit sector’s independence provides us with an important and often a mediating voice in policy debates. Our experience has shown us that pragmatic efforts, even among those with differing views and allegiances, can create real progress. And we know that we need all sectors of society, including government, to be capable partners.
How effective our government can be as a partner in solving social problems is an important question to ask in assessing candidates this year, and any year.
President and Treasurer