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‘What is my role here?’: The great unasked question of our political moment

When leaders forget what their role expects of them, they fail to see how they are part of the problem

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Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

An election year isn’t without its catty barbs, but mostly voters expect to hear debates on health care, making the economy work for the disadvantaged and what to do about foreign superpowers threatening American liberties. 

Not so of late. Public discourse emphasizes how one candidate is bad for the country while the other is its savior. It’s about people and personalities, not issues, and left in the wake are Americans craving substance on problems that truly affect their lives.

Voters showed their displeasure with this tact after the first presidential debate in September. Only 17% of viewers thought the debacle was “informative,” while 69% simply felt annoyed, according to a CBS survey. Eight in 10 said the tone was negative. Thursday’s debate offered more thorough discussion on key topics, but mutual respect between candidates remains relatively low.

Why? Those we expect to lead are asking the wrong questions, says American Enterprise Institute scholar Yuval Levin. Ahead of a virtual event at Brigham Young University this week, Levin spoke to Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson and suggested “the great unasked question” of this American moment is, “What is my role here?”

When members of Congress assume their seats in the Capitol, do they ask how they are supposed to behave given their role as a representative of American people? Or do they ask what they want and how they want to be perceived? 

Unfortunately, too many have asked the latter. Rather than focusing on what their station requires — say, working to become a thoughtful legislator — they use their positions as platforms. Thus, opines Levin, the political leaders who ought to address the core issues of the country are increasingly becoming the issue.

The same applies to all statuses: parents, teachers, spouses and CEOs. When leaders forget what their role expects of them, focusing instead on what they hope to gain from their position, they fail to see how they are part of the problem. 

Asking the right question is the start to rebuilding American institutions, Levin asserts. In the meantime, another question lingers, “How do we actually solve our problems?”

The United States is facing a unique situation in that both candidates campaign on the idea that the other candidate is the biggest problem facing the nation. That won’t solve much in the long run.

Levin takes a different approach. It’s the people, he says, who should roll up their sleeves.

Citizens should ask what their role demands of them and then set to work improving their communities. They must engage, vote, organize, help and serve.

Restoring the nation’s institutions doesn’t require any more tearing down. As the title of Levin’s recent book implies, this is a “time to build” character and invest in social capital.

With the election days away, consider what your role demands of you as a voter and citizen. Then consider what your role is come Nov. 4. This is your time to build the community you want.