In the final year of his presidency, President George W. Bush hosted a small group of lawmakers in the Oval Office. While there, he told them the story of the Resolute Desk — a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes, made from the timbers of the shipwrecked H.M.S. Resolute. The desk served every president since Hayes, except for Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford.
It was a story he often told, but that day he added a note of personal reflection. The desk, he told the members of Congress, is like the American ship of state. Soon there would be a new occupant of the Oval Office. But the desk, and our American democracy, would continue to steadfastly move forward.
I thought of that day, and many others from my years in Washington, during the events of the last two weeks. As a former commissioned officer to the president, I swore an oath to defend the Constitution. Like so many, I still feel compelled by that oath.
As our nation watched insurrectionists storm the U.S. Capitol and the second impeachment of the president, I have also seen a number of well-meaning suggestions from fellow citizens that we should avoid talking about “politics.”
I must respectfully, and I want to stress respectfully, disagree. Yes, the rhetoric of political discourse has reached a fevered pitch. And yes, shouting at each other on social media does nothing but fuel an ever-growing divide. And given all the other challenges we face, I sincerely understand the desire to shut out ugliness and focus solely on the positive.
This week, we witnessed a democratic transition of power, made peaceful by the heavy presence of law enforcement and national guard troops. Right now, our democracy feels fragile. What can give it strength and endurance? Voices of hope, of goodwill, of perseverance, of common ground.
Our democracy needs healthy engagement from its citizens, perhaps now more than ever. When “everyday Americans” appalled by what they saw in the Capitol assault stay silent, the debate is filled with the vengeful voices on both edges of the political spectrum. Our country has faced difficult times before; what has continued to propel our American ship of state forward is the coming together of Americans who lend their voices and goodwill and find common ground.
Disagreement is difficult. But when done with respect, it is essential. Understanding and common ground are never reached in silence. As President Obama said in his farewell address, “democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued. They quarreled. Eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that our democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
So, to those who want to say, “Shush, don’t talk about politics,” I would say, “please, do.”
Be informed. And not from an internet site written to reinforce what you already believe. Expose yourself to viewpoints different than your own. Read a newspaper. The media are not the enemy. There is a reason the First Amendment enshrines not only freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but also freedom of the press. Responsible members of the media exist to inform citizens, to shine a light into dark corners and behind closed doors. They are the necessary guardians against authoritarian rule. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that a decline in local journalism exists at the same time as a rise in extremism.
Be engaged. Talk to and listen to someone whose views differ from your own. You may discover those kernels of common ground. The First Amendment also guarantees the rights to petition the government and to peacefully assemble. If the city council, state legislature or Congress is considering something where you have a concern or interest, say something. Organize others to constructively add their voices too. And in that effort, be open to hearing the other side and to respecting their perspective. Look for the common ground that can move us forward, not the differences that tear us apart.
Upon leaving the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was reportedly asked by the gathered citizens what kind of government the delegates had created. His response, “a republic, if you can keep it.”
It rests on citizens of goodwill to keep it. If we use our voices, I believe we are up to the task.
Deb Fiddelke, of Lincoln, spent 15 years working in Congress and the White House, including as the deputy assistant for legislative affairs to President Bush.