When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I would listen to my parents’ conversations with their friends. While I cannot remember every conversation, I remember the general theme of their conversations—indeed, the theme of their lives. Optimism. A sense of confidence that we were Americans, and Americans were problem solvers. Whether they were talking politics, education, health, or other current issues of the time, they sounded more optimistic as a generation then we do today. They looked towards the future with hope and a certainty that they could face the danger and the challenges, and triumph over adversity. Today, we still have the danger and challenges, but many Americans are losing optimism. After being knocked around by a bad economy and some bad actors and events, many are short on faith in both government and private institutions. Can we as a nation find that optimism again, and if so, how?
My parents’ generation certainly had their sorrows and challenges. It was just twenty years since WW II had ended, and they had suffered so many losses through that terrible period. My father had witnessed plenty of death and destruction. His ship was hit by a German radio bomb, which had killed almost 200 men on the USS Savannah on 9/11/43. Before that, he had suffered through the Great Depression, and the death of his mother and a brother. He saw more of humanity’s troubles by age 21 than most of us ever see. And yet, he and his generation believed in a brighter future for themselves and for their country. They turned towards tomorrow. Some of my parents’ friends had seen two world wars, but their moods were usually upbeat, and there was always talk about new inventions, new construction, new products. They believed in progress, and medical and scientific advances were discussed and celebrated.
This generation by and large believed in their institutions of government, industry, and education. This is the world I grew up in. The world was certainly not free from problems, and certainly the world was not always fair to them. Poverty, racism, disease, nuclear threats, war–all were present, just like today. But the nation’s spirits were higher. Was it innocence, or was it the triumph of hope?
Too many right now think the country is headed in the wrong direction, and worry that their children’s future will not offer as much opportunity as they had. People are increasingly cynical about institutions. We need to turn this around if we are to hang onto our uniquely American “of course we can” attitude that encourages education, risk-taking, boldness, and creativity. I know we can turn this around by making some changes in government and business.
Our political leaders need to present a more accurate and brighter vision if there is to be a surge of optimism and a renewed sense of possibility again. When citizens are told that America is broke, bankrupt, unable to invest in infrastructure or people, it shakes confidence. America actually is still a very wealthy land, and we can solve these financial problems if we have the political will and courage to address them. Saying “we can’t” is both wrong and bad for morale. We can pay our bills—there are solutions. We can also afford to educate our youth, who are our future, and take care of our old and our sick. We can also afford to invest in our infrastructure and create jobs.
Government leaders also need to address the sense of doubt about fairness. Americans struggling to earn a check and pay bills feel cynical when they hear that powerful people pay as little as 13.7% tax, or when they read that big corporations with friends in Washington and great tax lawyers can pay zero. American laws need to look fair and be fair. This could be accomplished by campaign finance reform, banning certain contributions to lawmakers and by fixing the tax code.
Private industry leaders need to clean up their act. There are too many reports of cheating, lying, and other unethical behavior. The Wall Street disaster had its seeds in greed, and Americans are cynical about corporate practices. Corporations can restore confidence by following strict ethical rules.
There is a lot of talk now about “fairness” and about what the writers of our Constitution meant when they wrote “promote the general welfare.” I think it means exactly that. We’re all in this together, and together, we can make this better.
Former Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter represented New Hampshire’s First District from 2007-2011, she is seeking a third term in the November, 2012 election. She wrote the proposal for and established a non-profit, social service agency, which continues to serve all ages. She taught politics and history and is a strong supporter of Medicare and Social Security.