By Ellen Murray &
NEW YORK -- Dovetailing on the Arab Spring has been an autumn of domestic angst and grievance. As Americans turn to winter, many brace for a season rife with questions for our political leaders and 2012 presidential hopefuls.
With trust in the public sector at an all-time low – a recent CBS/New York Times poll found that 89% of Americans do not trust the government to do the right thing – there is a pervasive yearning for a bygone era of optimism and prosperity. Americans love their heroes, particularly those who inspire confidence in the American dream.
In the recent weeks’ debates and out on the stump, the GOP presidential contenders have been jumping over one another to proclaim that they, as president, can turn back the clock. Invoking Lincoln and Reagan, aspiring leaders promise a restoration of “simpler times” and “easy living.” While learning from the past might inform better decisions, replicating past policies in the midst of different circumstances makes little sense.
Viewing current troubles narrowly through the lens of a bygone era is a good start toward making bad policy. More circumspectly revisiting the past to inform our future at a time of considerable challenge, we suggest a reconsideration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Americans don't need to be historians to recognize that they are regularly touched by the indelible marks Roosevelt made on the country. Standing before a worried, demoralized crowd at Oglethorpe University’s 1932 commencement, Roosevelt – then governor of New York – declared, “The country needs – and, unless I mistake its temper – the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.”
A few months later, Roosevelt would win the Presidential election. He would spend the next twelve years redefining the role of federal government, expanding its reach and implementing groundbreaking legislation that created a social safety net for hardworking Americans, increased labor rights, and restarted an ailing domestic economy through government job creation and federally sponsored public works.
The New Deal’s underlying principle was simple: in order to create and maintain a healthy economy and just democracy, government must design policies that support all Americans, not simply the wealthiest few. But turning this simple principle into federalized policy required fearless leadership and proactive experimentation, not partisan bickering and reactive, superficial legislation. Unfortunately, today’s leadership have embraced the latter.
Washington’s reaction to the financial crisis has been particularly anti-Rooseveltian: bailing out corporate banks with a $700 billion aid package and wrestling with partisan divisiveness. Meanwhile, American families and communities feel greater inequality and vulnerability day to day, as official statistics chronicle the trends month by month.
Compounding these problems is our leaders’ seeming inability – or outright refusal – to work together.
While Roosevelt is known for his wide-sweeping, innovative legislation, his policies would never have passed had he not tirelessly pursued his critics to identify common ground, nor practiced keen pragmatism in the face of resistance. Today, leaders claim there exists no common ground nor means for compromise.
Understandably, many are voicing their discontent. These frustrations have spurred the Occupy Wall Street movement, alongside a rush of discourse on our value system and the importance of democratic engagement and economic empowerment. While protests draw attention to critical issues, awareness hardly guarantees change outright, and more must be done to convert engagement into tangible action.
Roosevelt’s Oglethorpe address resonates. Washington has been the traditional source for developing and implementing critical public policy, but while our government maintains a solemn responsibility to provide for the “inherently governmental,”– ensuring fair and efficient markets, providing for the national defense, and enforcing environmental protection measures, to name just a few – much can be accomplished by those with other perspectives, strengths, and ideas.
While there is no substitute for the public sector fulfilling its responsibilities, government holds no monopoly on effecting positive change. A growing “global-citizen sector” is evidence of new constellations of solving problems, from local to global. Innovations in information and communication technologies have allowed for a democratization of problem solving, such that today’s most entrepreneurial change agents are found in the public, private, and civic sectors alike.
Bill Drayton founded the nonprofit organization, Ashoka, in 1980 on the premise that social entrepreneurship is the most effective way to create and sustain social change. For three decades, Ashoka has invested in individual social entrepreneurs who demonstrate the ability to create social change through innovative and cost-effective solutions. Ashoka fellows’ track record of economic empowerment, educational attainment, health care access, renewable energy solutions, and more, demonstrates a maturation of a robust citizen-sector.
Donorschoose.org provides teachers the opportunity to connect directly with donors to raise money needed for initiatives and supplies beyond school budgets. Code for America partners with municipalities across the country to build technical capacity, pairing programmers with city managers. Since 2005, the Clinton Global Initiative has fostered innovative partnerships amongst business and civic leaders tackling thorny global challenges such as climate change and extreme poverty.
So, while we should be concerned and vocal about our social and economic woes, we also need to realize there is more that we can – and must – do to bring about change. Instead of waiting until the next election cycle, why not tap the creative, collaborative power within our own communities?
As Roosevelt concluded, “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Whether solving problems in our own neighborhoods, working in international public-private partnerships, or ultimately converting our voices into votes, an informed, engaged citizenry is a powerful force in moving beyond dialogue to action.Dr. Terry Babcock-Lumish is the Newman Director of Public Policy and Ellen Murray is the Research and Program Coordinator at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York. Murray holds a M.S. in Urban Affairs from Hunter College and a B.A. in Political Theory and Liberal Studies from New York University.
A Harry S. Truman Scholar, Babcock-Lumish has worked in local, state, and federal government in America, including in the President's Council of Economic Advisers as a Presidential Management Fellow and as a Lilly Community Assistance Fellow supporting Indiana Governor Frank O'Bannon's Children's Environmental Initiative. Upon leaving the White House in 2001, Dr Babcock-Lumish served as a researcher for two books by former Vice President Al Gore.