At times I’ve included among my periodic blog post responses to the some of the weekly questions I’ve been asked to answer for my daughter as part of a present from last Christmas. This is one of them. It’s a personal reflection… a musing… that I’m willing to share if in doing so it gives others a chance to reflect as well. It’s good for the soul.
The question asked how my political opinions have changed over time. Here’s what I said.
“I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any of my family if I say that my political opinions have always tipped towards the liberal end of the spectrum. Nor would it be a shock if I acknowledge that this has led me, invariably, to vote for the Democrats in any given race because their views more closely parallel mine than their Republican opponents. And, if anything, that trend line has become even more pronounced over time as the divide between the two major parties has intensified.
This question, however, shouldn’t be confined to what party do you support in a given election. It runs deeper than that, To me, I think it may be more important to ask what do we believe in? What do we stand for?
I didn’t think about those questions much when I was voting in my first presidential election in 1972, but now, as I prepare to vote in my twelfth — and no, I’ve never missed one — I think more and more about the question of values and the fundamental principles that has shaped us as a people.
And, as I write this in the summer of 2020, I not only see our nation challenged by a pandemic unlike any we have seen in my lifetime, but I see a nation in pain following the issues that have arisen from George Floyd’s murder. Both compel us to reexamine our assumptions about those values and principles.
I think we are a nation that is struggling to squarely face it’s failure to overcome deeply-embedded racism and social and economic equality that fly in the face of what I believe our nation is supposed to stand for. And I think we are a nation in the midst of a transition that faces tremendous resistance to that change from elements that want to take us backwards rather than forward.
Some folks suggest that there have been other times in our nation’s history just as ugly, just as polarized and just as disheartening. But I didn’t live through them. I AM living through this. And it is hard.
I think that the ugliness we see offends me all the more because I have spent almost 40 years in service to our nation — almost 35 as a career diplomat and another four+ as a consultant/advisor in retirement. And those years of service forced me to think with greater care about what that service meant, and what the values — enshrined in the Declaration of Liberty and the American Constitution and Bill of Rights — are supposed to mean.
Today we are quick to point to the irony (some would argue hypocrisy) of our founders’ writing with passion about all men being created equal and the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness, but not recognizing that those words should apply to the black slaves that they held. But, no matter the incongruity of their views, and the horrible legacy of slavery, we have come to see their words as applying universally — to all women and men. And as a nation we have tried to advance that message.
In the last century, we stood against fascism and those who massacred countless souls in the pursuit of racial purity. At home, we began to undo some for the most visible forms of discrimination in our nation. We have led globally in the fight for human rights, for human dignity, and for men and women of all colors and faiths and political views to be heard and empowered. We have championed the rights of LGBTQ people, we have led to empower women whose rights have been disregarded, and we have sought to empower youth. We have cared about the health of people across the globe fighting HIV, malaria, malnutrition, and advancing the cause of maternal health. We have shared our bounty as a nation and have helped to feed those who hungered and to encourage economic growth.
There is much that we did to give meaning to the vision of our founders. And, although our actions have not always been selfless and although at times we have struggled when our interests and our values clashed, that does not diminish the good that we have done, nor does it lessen the importance of the values we espouse.
Those values defined my service. But now, at this moment in time, I see those values challenged by a very different view of the world and of our nation. A view that calls for us to dominate, not partner. A view in which further enriching the wealthy matters more than meeting the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. A view that leads us to walk away from global challenges like climate change and the current pandemic and a view that enshrines excuses over action when it comes to addressing the racism and discrimination faced by black and brown Americans.
Even as we have sought to do good in the world we have failed to honestly address the challenges that confront our own society. We have made strides, but we have not come nearly far enough. And those of us who have known privilege and status because we are white have not cared enough or looked closely enough to see the unrealized promises of the American dreams of all our citizens. Just because we no longer see the visible trappings of segregation — “colored” drinking fountains or toilets or schools or seats on a bus — doesn’t mean we have given life to the promise of equality in our founding documents.
The murder of George Floyd has been a catalyst to force us to look at ourselves with, I hope, greater honesty. His death… and those of so many other black citizens… must be a sharp rebuke to our complacency. And, as the COVID-19 pandemic further accentuates the fault lines of racial and economic inequality, only willful and determined self-delusion would lead any of us to believe that all is right in America today.
So, my political opinions have changed. Not in terms of who I will vote for, but what I will fight for. How can I disregard the honest anger, the moral outrage, and the sense of a dream betrayed, that events of the past few years have brought — and that have been taken to a tipping point as 2020 has unfolded? How can any of us?
I care more deeply for the values that shaped my service to our nation than ever before, but I realize I will have to fight harder to finally see them realized too. I wish that I had looked closer, listened with greater care, and begun the process of thinking more critically about many of these questions long ago.
I can’t change the past. But I’ll begin now to be more active. More engaged. More vocal. I’ll transform my political opinions into political action. And I hope, if I answer this question again in five years I’ll tell you not that my views have changed but that the world around us has.”