The State of Our Union – Do Political Leaders Care?

Today, to what extent do we believe our political leaders care about the state of our union? And how would we ever know given their hyperbolic rhetoric and constant need to draw attention to themselves? In the past few weeks alone we have witnessed a collection of political gyrations that makes one head spin with dismay and turn our stomachs sick. The examples come from both political parties – there is no red/blue divide on this matter!

Take, for instance, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s remarks at an MLK Day service at Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem at which she used the word “plantation” to describe how the House of Representatives is run.

Or, how about Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s remarks about the plight and future of New Orleans, saying that God wants New Orleans to be a “chocolate city” and that the recent hurricanes are because “God is mad at America.”

Then there is the constant drumbeat of incredulous responses to the Jack Abramoff scandal. Now swearing off the capturing of questionable donations and support, leaders of both political parties are in a new bidding war: Who can look toughest in reigning in political shenanigans.

The Democrats, God bless their souls, even gathered last Wednesday in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress for a photo op where they signed their very own “Democratic Declaration: Honest Leadership, Open Government.” Are they serious?

Their get-together reminded me of the time when Democrats and Republicans gathered on the steps of the Congress in the aftermath of 9/11 in a show of unity, when they held hands and sang God Bless America. At the time we were told that their political conduct would become more bipartisan and less acrimonious. Look at where we are now.

I’m also reminded of how the Democrats tried to play gotcha with Judge Samuel Alito. The hearings did little to help Americans sort through the meaning of a court now being reconfigured, but it did help remind people why they dislike politics so much.

And, yes, there’s the incredible attack on Rep. John Murtha’s forthrightness as some Republicans have questioned the two Purple Heart medals he was awarded in service to the nation. This whole fiasco is hard to believe. Here is man who people on both sides of the aisle respect and even adore. And yet, the attacks persist.

In my book Hope Unraveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back, it’s clear that people believe that political leaders understand only one thing: their own positioning. There is a huge disconnect between leaders and people’s daily reality – their concerns, their hopes, even their love for their country.

Indeed, the rhetoric we hear from our political leaders not only bears little relationship to people’s lives, it distorts their very reality and cheapens our political discourse. It reflects a belief among leaders that the only way they will be heard is to ramp up their ridiculous-sounding sound bites, go on the attack, and stage photo ops. My sense is that they believe everyone does it, so why shouldn’t they; that they are carrying on the “good fight” for their cause; and that everyone knows that they really don’t mean everything they say – “It’s just politics!”

I have come away from my ongoing trips across America – six times in the last 15 years or so – believing that people do care about what gets said in our politics and public life. And the current tone and shape of our political discourse has a silent corrosive effect on our body politic. For people are in search of a sense of coherence about a rapidly-changing world and a sense of possibility about how we can build a better society. What our leaders say and do matters.

So, our political leaders need to know that their conduct suggests that they do not care about the state of our union and that their only concern is their own success. Perhaps this isn’t so, but that’s what we are left to believe. There is no red/blue divide on this matter – only a pox on both of their houses.