The Making of Americans: People Who Can Do Better
When the only grandfather I ever knew came to this country from Germany he went to work in a glass factory. And I remember him sitting on the front porch of his home with a Zane Grey novel on the table and a can of Budweiser in his hand listening to his first love, which was the St. Louis Cardinals, and telling his grandson, me, what America meant to him.
And he said America was great because it was free and because people seemed to care about each other. And I think that’s probably about the best succinct expression that I can offer, because you think about it, we’ve overcome so many things in our history. We’ve triumphed over so many things. There have been a number of wars. There have been depressions after depressions. There’s the violence of the industrialization process. There’s the challenges to our democracy which we always met by expanding participation and reforming our structure if we need to.
And I think America is a meritocracy too. It’s a meritocracy where if you are talented you can make something in this life. I think finally, I think that goodness is sometimes overlooked. And all over this country in countless communities, people are doing things to try to help other people with no expectation of return.
I think that a lot of middle-class Americans are beginning to ask themselves, will my child have a higher standard of living than I had? That’s almost been considered the birthright in America. But over the last 20 or 30 years, the middle-class has really taken it on the chin in America. For example, in 2012 the median income was the same as it was in 1996. I mean, there are literally 66 million Americans who are living one paycheck away from economic disaster. And I think that’s taken a toll on people’s feeling about the future, and that’s why what’s critical is for people to realize that as citizens they have the power to make America a better place.
In the Internet age apathy should not be an option. Look at the Arab Spring and, if indeed, you can change governments in the Muslim world with social networking playing a central role, there’s no excuse in this country for us not having citizens actually forcing our political process to deal with the real problems we have.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.