Essential Values and the American Character

We're better than we think we are, and so are our leaders. Just ask Tony Blair.
by | September 24, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

We do not know ourselves as a people. Even though our country is almost entirely composed of immigrants, there is a distinctly American character that is profoundly good. In the introduction to his political memoir, "A Journey," former British Prime Minister Tony Blair writes, "I have come to love America and what it stands for. Not that there aren't a thousand points of criticism or disagreement. But I have a settled belief that was once intellectual and political and is now emotional, that the essential values it embodies are so much more fundamental to our fortune than even Americans themselves may appreciate. I have also seen more closely the parts of the world where those values are not in place; and I perceive more plainly the difference."

A public official's view of how people act shapes policy choices and political strategy. At Governing's Summit on the Cost of Government last week, a recurring theme was the need to communicate with and connect with citizens. And toward the end of the conference there was a bit of pushback to this in the form of a debate about whether the form of government in our states and cities and counties is representative democracy or direct democracy. Some of the public officials in attendance were saying, in essence, "Wait a minute, ours is a representative form of government in which we were elected or appointed to make decisions, and set and implement policy."

But policy decisions breathe life into our values: Our values do not become realized until we put our money and our power behind them. So in a democracy, the people need to have a real role in making important policy decisions. The good news is that, in values and in common sense, we are a good people--better even than we ourselves know.

Evidence of this crops up all the time. For example, in her best-selling memoir "Wild," Cheryl Strayed writes about how the people she knew warned her that she was taking an enormous risk hiking alone on the Pacific Crest Trail. But, she writes, "all the time that I'd been fielding questions about whether I was afraid to be a woman alone ... I'd been the recipient of one kindness after another." In July, the Washington Post ran a story about one of two young men who were bicycling across America. Before the trip, they'd been warned by family and friends to keep their guard up. They happened to be in that movie theater in Aurora, Colo., when the shooting broke out, and Stephen Barton suffered shotgun wounds to his neck and face. But what he remembers most about the trip is that "there's so many people out there waiting to be kind to you, generous to you. ... It was very sustained, the kindness we felt from strangers."

Just as we do not know ourselves, we do not know our leaders. During my term as mayor of Kansas City, I held 116 town hall meetings. Repeatedly I heard from citizens I met at the meetings that I was nothing like what they thought I was going to be like, that I was better in person than the impression they'd got from the media. "I was pretty sour on you, but you're all right," one person said. In my current role at Governing, I meet many state and local government leaders and listen to the speeches and presentations of many more. And while I may join the crowd in gnashing my teeth at Congress, the city council or the state legislature, I can tell you that I am invariably impressed with the decency and intelligence of most of the leaders I meet.

There are good reasons for our misperceptions. First, there is the basic nature of media. Normal behavior is not news. Another airliner landing safely is not a story. So the public believes, based on what they read and what they see on TV, that people are pretty bad. The second is in the basic nature of our day-to-day relationship with our governments. Nobody calls city hall to tell the city leaders or staff what a good job the city is doing. People who are happy don't come to public hearings--only people who do are outraged or anxious. So bureaucrats and politicians can come to see citizens as a bunch of whiners and complainers. And finally, there is basic human nature. We gravitate naturally toward folks who are similar to us, not just ethnically and by income but also those who share our views. Since we don't know the folks who are different from us, when things seem to be going wrong it's easy to blame them for being lazy, stupid or greedy.

The little debate at the Cost of Government meeting over direct democracy versus representative democracy obscures the critical facet that is common to both: democracy. The essential fact of democracy is that the people are ultimately the boss. Good political leaders use methods of communication that are horizontal as well as vertical, meeting and talking with members of the community, particularly including those with whom they might not agree. And it has to be in significant numbers to impact the community. The key to effective governance is allowing citizens to experience for themselves the "essential values" that Tony Blair sees as embodied in the American character.