By some metrics, these are pessimistic times in America. The country was rocked by two mass shootings earlier this month, one of which is being treated as an act of domestic terrorism. New data from Pew Research Center shows American trust in government institutions and in one another is declining. Other data show 85% of Americans think public discourse has taken a turn for the worse in the past few years. And families are still grappling with the revelation a network of wealthy parents gamed the college admissions system for their children.
One may reasonably ask, “Will America be OK?”
America’s leading voices say “yes.” Over the past year, Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson has interviewed dozens of thought leaders across the spectrum, asking for their take on the state of affairs in the country and gathering their ideas for moving forward. Here are their voices offering the antidote for today’s pessimism and calling for personal adjustments to ensure the future remains brighter than the past.
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman on the future of the country:
“I hope (people) believe with me that America’s best days are ahead of us. This is still the greatest place in the world to live, we’re blessed to be Americans. And now we’re squandering our current, and to some extent our future, because we’re squabbling politically for reasons that are not as important as the well-being of the country and every one of us as citizens. So we, the people have to demand that our elected officials get with it and work together for the betterment of our country.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and author George Will offers his prescription for happier days:
“Be cheerful. We have far too much teeth-gritted politics and fist-clenched politics. Step back and understand something, that this is a country people are fighting to get in. This is a country with big problems. But that’s because it’s a big, successful country. And a lot of our problems are the problems of success, how to distribute wealth because we create wealth wonderfully, how to allocate health care because we have wonderful, marvelous capacities of modern medicine. So stand back and understand that there’s not only a moral obligation to be intelligent. There’s a moral obligation to be cheerful while you’re being intelligent.”
Author and business executive Sheri Dew on what happens by bringing everyone to the table:
“I think, I hope America can survive the conflict we’re seeing on so many fronts these days. If the sheer goodness we see in most Americans across the country — the goodness of people that we see instantly when tragedy strikes, the goodness of people who care about their families and their neighbors and in the basic well-being of humankind — could somehow rise to the surface, yes, definitely America will survive and become stronger than ever.”
Social scientist and author Arthur Brooks shared with the Deseret News his recipe for expelling contempt:
“The solutions in our country really start with each one of us. It’s funny, there is a tendency to feel really alienated and to feel like each one of us doesn’t matter, but the truth is that the solutions to polarization and contempt and anger and hostility, to hatred in our country, there’s really only one solution to that. It’s that each one of us creating an apostolate around us of love. And so therefore, if you remember one thing that I say, it’s please figure out a way to answer the contempt that you see on social media, in the political conversations that you have at school or at work, or God forbid, even the contempt you see around the Thanksgiving table. To answer that with love and kindness and compassion and warmheartedness. And in so doing you will be the beginning of the next great era of American history.”
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse told the Deseret News the antidote to collective hate is love and strong family relationships:
“The way to love your neighbor is to have a pretty well thought out understanding of what will make your neighbor happy. … We’re going to have to, together, figure out how to build the new habits of social capital and of neighborliness and of community. Despite the fact that technology is always whispering to you, hey, the place you’re at right now isn’t that interesting. You should flee to somewhere else. Actually, most of the time, the really interesting place to be in the long run is by loving the people that God has put in front of you, right where you sit right now.”
Pollster Scott Rasmussen suggests strong communities, not politics, is what moves the country forward:
“Government has a very important role to play, but it is not the lead role. Every one of us has something to do to help manage society, to help govern society as individuals, you know. My wife plays a role in governing my life … but she would also say that I play a role in governing her life. You know, and your job, your employer plays a role in it, and the associations that you’re a part of, because these are the things that hold society together. It is that light, that informal government that is far more important and powerful. And that’s where people can come together and they can work together in a community to solve problems. So we see that a lot here in Utah. Probably some of the best examples of people with different ideas coming together and saying, how can we find common ground and make this work? And that is exactly the opposite of what we see in Washington.”
Astrid Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University, describes her application of authentic leadership:
“You listen, you have to kind of know where people are coming from, see them as they are and what their own strengths and their own opportunities for growth are. I think that’s really important. Most people want to succeed, by the way. I have never once felt like people are out to fail themselves, you know. They’re not and the attitude you take with them and how you help them see their own opportunities.
“We need to be comfortable in our discomfort. We need to say that the way we’ve always done things may not be the way we’re going to keep doing things. We have to pivot our culture, build on our strengths, and see the opportunities ahead of us.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks says “thick relationships” are the cure to a fragmented society:
“Let’s stop seeing ourselves as individual choosers who have a solitary journey through life. Let’s put relationships first, see ourselves emerging out of relationship, devoting to relationship. Life is a qualitative endeavor. It’s about how thick are our relationships, not how many. And so devoting to picking up those four commitments, writing them down on a piece of paper, and say, How thick is my relationship to my vocation? How thick is my relationship with my family, to my philosophy or faith, to the neighbors right around me? And if everybody sat down with those four things and evaluated, what’s the quality here? What’s the thickness here? I think you’d see areas for growth, areas for satisfaction. But intentionally it would lead to, I think, a thicker life and also just a richer community and our nation would not be as disconnected as it is right now.”
Legendary journalist Bob Woodward, when asked if political leaders are considering the nation’s best interests:
“No, and we’ve set up a political system that’s become increasingly polarized, obviously, and everyone’s looking at their own personal interest, or the interest of their party or their interest group. There is such a thing as the national interest. You and I could sit down with a whiteboard — what are the things that we really need to accomplish, the whole nation?
“I have a kind of undying optimism and belief in the political system we have in this country. And it’s the job of the politicians, particularly, to sort through what the facts are and decide what to do.”
These voices bring light to the future and optimism to American families. The Deseret News will continue to convene similar conversations on forthcoming episodes of the “Therefore, What?” podcast, hosted by opinion editor Boyd Matheson.