Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Occupy Wall Street:" An Inevitable Moment for America

by Joe Sestak

America's character is based on an alliance of rugged individualism and common enterprise -- a fair individual opportunity and the commonwealth of our country. Shared opportunity is shared prosperity, and common wealth is common strength.

As predictable as our revolution was against England's rulers more than two hundred years ago, so were the ones in the Middle East and North Africa in these last several months. Predictable simply because what was good for the powerful and well-connected was not good for the rest of the citizenry.

There emerged competing realities: the reality that the powerful pursued and the reality within which people actually lived. Simply put, the leaders pursued their own interests without thinking about the interests of their people; they thus lost the support of the people. In my 31 years of naval service across the globe, I came to understand that while many in the world may respect the power of America's military and the strength of its economy, they admire the power of our ideals -- it's why the young Egyptian officer commented as he did, and why the uprisings were inevitable. And it is why my political experience convinces me that the reason the people revolted is a lesson that applies not only to leaders overseas, but also to our own leaders here at home.

Americans are certainly faced with challenging times. We are concerned for our future and there is a lot of justified outrage -- just as in Egypt and Tunisia -- when the nation's institutions seem to be incapable of positive change. But beyond this, I think there is a deeper uneasiness in America today. People feel that the American Dream -- the idea that our children, based on their efforts, will have the opportunity to do even better than we have done -- is broken. In fact, we know it's broken. The collaboration of a group of researchers from across the political spectrum demonstrated that, for the first time in our history, Americans in their 30s are earning less than their parents did at that age a generation ago. And this study was conducted a year before the recession that decimated the stock market, cost nearly 10 million American jobs, and wiped out $14 trillion in household wealth.

The American people see major challenges on every front and are afraid no one really has a plan to deal with any of them. Instead, what the people see are leaders who have made the "politics of survival" the determining factor of what they do. This practice of survival politics has caused leaders to adhere to a "political" reality that is different from that in which most of us actually live. As a consequence, people feel that leaders no longer are willing to use -- or even capable of using -- their power within an institution in order to change actual conditions outside the institution. Moreover, the political establishment's requirement for near-unanimous adherence to its view of reality is increasingly producing outsiders rather than those who are willing to change the system from the inside -- just as was the case from Bahrain and Yemen to Libya. This failure of our traditional political institutions to change from within provides impetus to outside forces -- such as our own "revolutionary" faction, the tea party -- much as political institutional failure has done in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt.

This understandable lack of faith in our government and its leaders has ravaged not only our democratic process, but ultimately undermines our sense of national unity -- what we stand for and what we are capable of. It is not just politics. The trust of Americans has been devastated by fraud and failure in virtually every area of public life. People have been let down and led astray -- to disastrous consequences -- by government and politicians, corporations and titans of business, civic leaders and experts of all stripes. Unbelievable lapses of oversight and foresight have occurred across administrations and on the watch of both parties. The government of the people has rarely been held in such low regard by the people; and when the body created by and for the people does not enjoy the public trust, it must be viewed as nothing short of a crisis. We are arguably in no less a crisis than are the governments that have lost the support of their people in North Africa and the Middle East. We must restore trust in our leaders.

The impact of this lack of public trust can be seen in the Obama administration's decision regarding Libya's uprising. For the first time, a president has taken the nation to war with less than a majority of Americans supportive of his decision.

We are the only nation that was first founded on an idea, not on power. Competing views of how to continue achieving the progress of that idea is part of the ongoing American conversation about who we are as a nation, who we aspire to be, and the role we seek in the world. And if our leaders restore the people's trust with a commitment to accountability, we will be able to address the range of security challenges of this century with a renewed strength built upon our most precious resource: our people and an alliance of a fair individual opportunity with the common good. It is what the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa are about.

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