I remember being in high school, arriving home after class to a house full of debate. Politics, pop culture, art, religion--you name it--my parents, grandparents, and their friends had opinions to share. When it came to politics, there was a lot of strong disagreement. There were fiscal conservatives, liberals, moderates, social conservatives, social justice campaigners, Reaganites, FDR defenders, and just about every other ideological perspective on the spectrum. I would grab a snack and get started on homework amid a whirlwind of divergent opinions.
What I remember most about those afternoons is that the adults in the room rarely agreed, but spent time listening to one other and challenging each other's ideas and solutions. They weren't afraid to re-examine their own views, weren't threatened by opposing opinions, and weren't offended by healthy debate. Perhaps most importantly, they were all passionate about their beliefs, excited to make a difference, and committed to the causes they held dear.
It was in that room, day after day, that I learned what diversity of thought looked like. I learned that it was just as important to listen, as it was to speak your mind. I learned that sometimes people's words will cause you to reflect upon what you believe, and that's okay. I learned to stand up for the things I valued and to never shy away from challenges that cause you to think hard about who you are and what you represent. I learned that discovering how you feel about big issues like taxes, foreign policy, abortion, and health care is downright empowering. I learned that a room full of people who respect each other's right to disagree is a beautiful thing. I learned that discovering unexpected common ground is eye-opening.
However, the lesson I learned most of all is that if you really believe in something, talk about it. Write about it. Engage people in discussions about it. Vote. My aunt used to say, "Turn your passion into action."
As I communicate with voters around the country, many reveal that they aren't sure if they can make a difference. They worry about the division in American politics, the focus politicians place on demonizing others rather than offering their own dynamic visions, and the inability of many to engage in healthy, respectful debates like the ones I witnessed in high school. They express that politics, politicians, and people too intolerant of differing views to sit down and talk things through, can be both exhausting and disappointing. I empathize with those sentiments.
The truth is that we are in very difficult times. We are in our 43rd consecutive month of over 8% unemployment. The labor force participation rate has sunk to its lowest level in thirty-one years. Food-stamp enrollment has soared to a record 46.7 million Americans. The national debt has surpassed $16 trillion. On September 11, 2012, the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was the victim of a terrorist attack, four Americans were killed, and we witnessed rioting in the Middle East that featured horrific anti-American language and sentiments, including the burning of our flag.
It is in times like these that your commitment, your passionate exchange of ideas, your desire to challenge and be challenged, your ability to engage in the kind of healthy, respectful debate I witnessed day after day in high school, and--of course--your voting power, are needed most.
For me, the path to help fix what is broken in America includes a commitment to our Constitution, a class-warfare free environment where equality of opportunity--not equality of outcomes--thrives, a peace-through-strength foreign policy, an increase in our energy independence so that we don't need to rely on countries that often detest what we stand for, and a revamping of our educational system so that school choice, competition, and merit pay for quality teachers--not tossing more money at a broken system--can help America's kids succeed. That path also includes replacing government-centered Obamacare with free market-centered health care reform that empowers individuals--not bureaucrats--to manage our health, cutting and capping federal spending so that America's youth don't bear an enormous debt burden, and reforming Medicare and Medicaid for future generations.
Those are my priorities as I step into the voting booth this November, priorities I began to discover many years ago in the cozy living room where I did homework and overheard lively debates among the enthusiastic people I loved most. Their dialogue helped me to discover my stand on issues, and their ability to do so without shouting at each other is something I carry with me in my work every day.
You will always face intolerant people, those who resort to name-calling and putting their hands over their ears when they hear something they disagree with. In the name of solving this country's problems, be their opposite.
Most importantly, through it all, never forget your power to make a difference. Turn your passion into action.
Cross-published in the Association of Mature American Citizens' Election 2012 print magazine.