Taking stock as we begin a new year

Published 6:58 am Tuesday, January 9, 2018

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.

I’ll tell you in a moment how much work we have ahead of us to strengthen our country. But I’m mindful of just how strong we already are. A resilient economy has been performing well for several years now, avoiding both rampant inflation and recession. Despite its flaws, we have a remarkable education system that has allowed more people to enroll in college, make dramatic gains in lifelong learning and — especially in the case of racial minorities — get an education that a generation ago would have been much harder to secure.

We have a more diverse, educated workforce than ever before, and we’re making progress on issues from climate change to social equality. We remain wealthy, powerful, and blessed with perhaps the strongest governing institutions of any country in the world — despite the challenges of the moment.

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We possess an immense, deep pool of talented people, who have made us a leading example of unity out of diversity, or as our motto has it, “out of many, one.”

However, we have to work to retain and buttress our strengths. And as I suggested, we have our work cut out for us.

For one thing, we’ve always been an open country, welcoming a great diversity of people and remaining open to their aspirations and ideas. But we’ve been losing this. Immigration has been cut back sharply. A large and vocal group of Americans want to “take back America” to some more homogenous ideal that never actually existed.

At the same time, too many Americans also feel excluded and alienated from economic opportunity and what should be shared institutions. There are fewer places where different classes of people can mix and where our institutions can become more heterogeneous. We tend to associate with our own, which is natural and not to be criticized, but it carries costs in reinforcing our own biases.

And as economic inequality rises, smaller and smaller groups of people corner an ever larger share of wealth, political power, and communal influence.

All of this has been straining our politics. We are more polarized and politically divided than I’ve seen in my lifetime. Excessive partisanship, the permanent political campaign that marks policy-making at the federal level, the strength of narrow interest groups, the outsized role of money in politics, the decline in the quality of public debate — all are cause for great concern.

I hope 2018 sees a turn toward addressing the defects in our political institutions and political culture — a shift in political life toward seeking the common good and focusing on the national interest.

This would allow us to re-focus on one of the defining features of our country’s history: that what we’re about as a nation is providing opportunity for all. That everyone has a role to play in contributing positively to a better neighborhood, a better community, a better state and nation, a better world. That as Americans, we devote ourselves to something larger than ourselves.

This sense of beckoning opportunity has been waning. We’re not investing in our future as we used to, in basic infrastructure like roads and bridges, in social infrastructure like schools, health clinics and libraries, or in the research and development that are crucial to a next-generation economy. Our optimism as a country — so characteristic of our past — seems hard to locate these days. Americans are troubled, uneasy, and alarmed by everything from the quality of presidential leadership to Russian meddling to the rise of income inequality to the decline of traditional families.

Yet here’s the thing. While I understand our problems, I utterly reject the idea that we can give into them. From its start, this nation has been about resolving problems. We did so by embracing our simple, core virtues: humility, hard work, a welcoming attitude, inclusivity, neighborliness, consensus-building, and above all, a recognition that freedom has been given to us and we have an obligation to lead constructive lives.

That’s what we’re about as a country. Not decline, or division, or insurmountable obstacles. Let’s remember that in 2018.

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.