Finding time for politics isn’t easy. Lately, my blog has suffered as I revise my book about political families in 19th-century Washington DC. At the end of the work day, I come home and watch the Newshour and practice my old habit of talking back to the TV—an easy, weirdly comforting form of political expression that—alas!—is far less efficacious than writing something. Political speech needs a community in order to matter.
Ironically, the message that we have to speak out has been all over TV. On one recent night, I caught Leon Panetta discussing his new memoir with Judy Woodruff. The core of the former defense secretary’s message?
This is a serious time in our history in 2014. It’s a serious time with regard to, what direction is this country going to take? We have got a Washington that’s largely dysfunctional in a stalemate. We’re not dealing with the principal issues facing this country. We’re dealing with a series of threats abroad.
It isn’t just ISIS. We’re dealing with North Korea. We’re dealing with Iran. We’re dealing with Russia. We’re dealing with cyber-attacks. It is an unprecedented set of threats . . . This is a time to open up debate. . . . What is it we need to do? What can we learn from the past, and how do we get together to provide the leadership that’s necessary to keep this country strong? I think that’s the right debate. And I think people ought to embrace that debate, because that’s what makes our country what it is.
Meanwhile, Kirsten Gillibrand, US senator from New York, has been on the circuit promoting her book about political engagement. She seems to be styling herself as a political Sheryl Sandberg. Gillibrand has written a ‘Lean-In‘ kind of book, Off the Sidelines, directed specifically at encouraging American women to speak out in politics and become more involved in public life.
Gillibrand’s message is timely, roughly coinciding with the announcement that young Malala Yousafzai is one of this year’s recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize (the other being Kailash Satyarthi, who won for his tireless work on behalf of children who are trafficked and enslaved). Worldwide, Malala has come to embody political bravery, continuing to speak out on behalf of girls’ education in the Islamic world despite death threats and a gunman’s attack that nearly ended her life. Her deep yet unshowy convictions, coupled with eloquence beyond her years, make her one of today’s most potent models of activism.
By comparison, our current campaign season is bankrupt, impoverished. Urgent, inspiring calls for action and the charismatic nobility of exemplary actors: both are missing. Leadership is something more what polling, marketing, and moneymen like the Koch brothers can supply. The negative style of campaigning so prevalent today is shameful because it denies the country of what needs most, which is fresh ideas. Finding the dirt and making it stick calls for a very different skill set than what is required to run this magnificent but badly turned-around country of ours. For that, we need brave actors who can get out ahead of the electorate and chart a path forward.
Note: this was written just before breaking news of the shootings in Canada’s Parliament buildings.