Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI1) spoke with Congressional summer interns about politics in Washington and how the culture has changed.
I love that we do this. I love that we bring together young people from both sides of the aisle.
I was an intern, once upon a time. I started out in the mailroom in Russell on the Senate side. Eventually I figured out that the House side was a lot better.
In between, I spent most nights waiting tables over at Tortilla Coast. At closing time, I would grab a bottle of Pacifico and hang out with the busboys.
These days, when my shift ends, it might be a Miller Lite with a colleague, followed by a call with my family. But in many respects, not much has changed for me.
One of my daily prayers is to keep my sense of self: my enthusiasm for ideas, my passion for policy…my sense of things that brought me here.
So I see myself in you, to say the least. I see that drive and curiosity. The challenge is to sustain that energy, to keep that faith in the future.
This is a challenge for all of us right now, isn’t it?
Curiosity can often seem no match for cynicism. Disillusionment is fast becoming our default state.
On the Fourth of July, Gallup reported an alarming drop in American patriotism. Only 47 percent of adults now say they are ‘extremely proud’ to be Americans. This is a record low.
Here is the way I see this: it is no longer just that our passions are getting the best of us. More and more, our politics is enabling the worst in us.
We no longer see our opponents as ‘the other side,’ but simply as ‘the others,’ as targets. As someone not fundamentally like us.
The more politics preys on our divisions, the more we become defined by them.
It leads to a view of life and society as a zero-sum game where one group has to win at the expense of the other.
All of this is slipping further into our daily lives. We too easily retreat to the comfort, and conformity, of our tribes.
This blinds us to the perspectives that others bring to the table. In turn, we ourselves don’t reach out, don’t offer our time and energy.
And social media just amplifies all of these trends. It is an industry where you can make money feeding fear and resentment.
We are caught in this paradox where we are more connected than ever, but we could not feel more disconnected or more alienated.
That’s why, for all of the big challenges out there, the one that keeps me so concerned is what’s going on in our civic life.
So, the question is: what do we do about it?
Well, always remember that our country is this beautiful idea, this awesome experiment.
It gives us the chance to be free, and to be happy.
It also gives us the space to resolve our differences, and work together to advance a vision of liberty and justice for all.
Guess what? It is our job to preserve all this. And it is a job. It is real work, but it is certainly worth the effort.
After all, the American Idea has made us the most free, the most flourishing, the most generous country on Earth.
We can never take this for granted.
And we won’t so long as we remember our common humanity.
We just cannot let our divisions overtake our basic respect for another.
We need to recognize that we are all less-than-perfect. We all fall short, we all struggle. We all want to be heard, and to be needed.
Our humanity spurs us to find perspective, to listen, and to lend a hand.
This is without question the greatest antidote, the greatest antibody, we have against the forces of alienation.
By rediscovering our common humanity, we can take the oxygen out of tribalism and identity politics.
One way we can do this is through a resurgence of ideas. Of substance. Of reason. By actually engaging on the merits.
The first, maybe best, advice I ever received here came, believe it or not, from a liberal Massachusetts Democrat. During my freshman orientation, I had breakfast with Barney Frank.
He told me that what he loved about the House is how it is a genuine meritocracy. You get ahead based on the power of your ideas, and your ability to make a persuasive case for them.
These days, we don’t even really set out to persuade anymore. We just hit each over the head until the music stops.
For all the provocation, there isn’t much that’s actually thought-provoking. We rarely skim below the surface.
We shouldn’t derive our meaning from building a brand around ourselves. We should derive our meaning from our commitment to our ideas, our convictions.
Rather than just searching for the nearest echo chamber, putting our ideas to the test makes us strengthen and improve them.
It makes us better, and gives us more perspective, too.
We can also rediscover our common humanity by improving the tone, and raising the level, of our debates.
It is well-trodden ground to note that we need to disagree without being disagreeable.
But this is not just about good manners; it is about the manner of how we govern. It is about our ability to solve problems.
Civility is a civic imperative. A healthy discourse allows us to navigate our disagreements in the search for common ground. To accept good ideas, even if our side didn’t come up with them.
Too often right now, if one side is for it, the other is against it. No questions asked.
At this point, we have reduced our debates to a stream of hot takes and tweets.
But our discourse, at its most vibrant, is not just a visceral show of hands. It is a show of heart, a place where we come together for thoughtful discussion.
We deconstruct each other’s arguments, instead of just impugning each other’s motives.
Sometimes things get a little heated. Just search my mentions on Twitter, and you will see exactly what I mean.
That’s okay. I can’t control that. But what I can do is control my own actions. So I choose not to respond in kind, but to respond with kindness. Just let people get stuff off of their chest, and move on.
I know that snark sells, but it doesn’t stick. It doesn’t last. It doesn’t unite people around a bigger idea or a greater cause.
Personal engagement takes work, it takes patience. It takes following my mother’s advice to use two ears, and one mouth, in that proportion.
We need to revitalize the battle of ideas, and be grateful for the chance to do this every day.
One big thing we can do to rediscover our common humanity is to strengthen the very institutions that promote togetherness and connect us to one another.
This may sound heavy, but it’s important.
We call these the mediating institutions in civil society. But it’s all really just a way of describing the community. It’s the churches and charities, the PTAs and Little Leagues, the food banks and shelters.
Think of how you have come to know different people, and how you have benefited from their perspective. That is the value of mediating institutions, and civil society.
Many of you have studied Alexis deTocqueville. Well, he thought this was actually the genius of our democracy, how we are constantly uniting every day in some way.
It’s true, and refreshing, especially compared to what often goes on this bubble.
But now, as politics increasingly overtakes our daily lives, it breeds a narrow vision of society where there are only two actors: the individual and the government.
This diminishes what goes on in the space between. It crowds out civil society, where the stuff of life happens.
It is where we form our passions, and learn different perspectives.
If we want to rediscover our common humanity, we need to expand the space for civil society. We need to give these institutions the maximum freedom to help people.
Over the years, I have met incredible leaders changing lives in our communities.
One of them is Shirley Holloway.
Shirley runs a shelter a few miles from here, in Anacostia. It is called House of Help, City of Hope. They have served thousands of people struggling with addiction and helplessness.
Shirley doesn’t just get people off the streets, she gets them back on the path of life.
Her motto is: “We don’t see the problem; we see the person.”
These are good words to live by, and they really sum up my message today: see the person, not the problem.
This is where the road back to our common humanity starts: with engaging each other more, with engaging in the community more.
It’s about keeping your cool, and keeping your sense of self.
To boil it all down, here is the choice you will need to make. It is a choice I always tell our new members that they need to make.
Did you come here just to be something, just to build a brand?
Or are you here to do your part, to make a real difference?
If you are, we need you. We need doers. We need leaders.
So as you go back to your campuses and communities, think about ways you can engage people more, on policy and the problems of the day.
Start there. Take that first step. Think about how you can apply what you’ve learned here.
Remember, we don’t have to be trapped by cynicism.
We don’t have to lower our sights. We should always raise our gaze.
Thank you for listening. I look forward to taking your questions.