Getting America unstuck

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 7, 2014

I keep asking myself why America is stuck. We can’t seem to get anything serious done.
We have a big budget deficit, crippling national debt and a jobless rate that is still too high. And even though we’re the wealthiest country in the world — read options — we can’t agree on how to solve any of those problems.
We are wobbling our way out of the biggest economic slump since the Great Depression — two steps forward, one step back. And at a time we should be pulling together, we are pulling apart. We don’t even have a comprehensive and serious program for economic growth.
Americans’ disenchantment with the federal government is deep — President Barack Obama’s approval rating is at 41 percent and dissatisfaction with Congress is a whopping 79 percent, according to a CBS News-New York Times poll last week — at a time corporations and billionaires are spending hundreds of millions to lobby for tax loopholes and air attack ads in this year’s elections.
I care passionately about our country, its future and how it’s regarded across the world. I remember visiting Europe for the first time as a teenager. An elderly woman crossed the street, and believing I was American, proceeded to thank our country for what it did for Europeans.

“You tell them at home, young man,” I remember her saying, “that we are truly grateful.” She was talking about World War II and the Marshall Plan, America’s initiative to aid Europe after the war.
I travel extensively, and no one has come up to me lately to thank our country for anything.
When I read that it’s a positive development that the House of Representatives has voted not to put us on the road to default, I gag. Should we be expected to applaud because Washington politicians didn’t allow default on our legally incurred debts?
I often ask myself whether there is something I should be doing. I vote. I write. I’ve explained public affairs to my children. (When one of them asked me what she should be when she grew up, I told her she should be a climatologist. That was not a big hit.)
It struck me that while I read that some elected representatives think we should not pay our debts and should default, or want to cut food stamps but keep farm subsidies for the richest farmers, I don’t have any contact with people who think that way. I don’t actually know anyone who elected the representatives who think that way.

And then I wonder whether the people who think that way know someone who’s not a politician who thinks the way I think. Suppose none of us ever talk things over with the people with whom we disagree?
Professor James Fishkin runs Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy, which researches public opinion and democracy issues. The center assembles a representative sample of the public around controversial issues, gives them briefing materials and then lets them discuss and listen to each other. One effort was called “What Next for California,” which brought together people from all over the state to talk about gridlock and what they needed to do to get out of it. At that session, as in others, attendees worked through deeply held differences and came up with pretty good ideas.
You and I live in a country that is paralyzed by angry division. Perhaps one way to dislodge us from paralysis is to reinvent town meetings, where you meet neighbors and those who think differently from you. It wouldn’t be easy; it would take real effort from all of us.
But we’re in deep trouble. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and pull together to get ourselves out of this rut.
Peter Goldmark, a former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.