Alumni Column – Have We Lost Our Way?

I was encouraged to read about Colgate’s two recent campus visitors, Newt Gingrich and Colin Powell, and the reaction of those on campus. To me, the interest generated by the two speakers was, indeed, gratifying and I would have greatly enjoyed taking part in the exchange. Fortunately, to the interested observer, the opportunity for positive debate of differing views appears to remain alive on campus. I wish that were the case off-campus. As Thomas Jefferson stated in one of his most famous quotes, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” Have we lost our way?

Today, with all that is happening around us, we seem to have lost sight of Jefferson’s wisdom. We are now sharing a discussion regarding the direction taken by the Obama administration that clearly illustrates this fact. The extremes on both sides are drowning out the opportunity for reasonable debate and, with the likes of Keith Olbermann on the left and Sean Hannity on the right, it is difficult to hear beyond the shouting and finger pointing. Like most Americans, I see myself falling somewhere between these extremes–in my case, right of center.

Since graduating from Colgate over 30 years ago–a fact that shocks me every day–I’ve had the opportunity to be closely involved in the political process. From serving in elective office, appointed political positions and managing political campaigns, involvement in the process has been an important part of my life. My interest began at an early age, helping my Dad in his efforts, and was more formally developed during my years as a Colgate student. I learned at all stages the importance of engaged debate and differing points of view.

One thing I’ve also learned is that when we lose our way, we can regain our course by looking back to the writings of our Founding Fathers. To me, Jefferson’s ideas provide a remarkable roadmap for dealing with the issues of our day. Unfortunately, it seems that so few of our current elected officials have taken the time to study his map. Below are just a few of Jefferson’s many points of interest along the way:

“Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone.”

“Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”

“History, in general, only informs us what bad government is.”

“A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned–this is the sum of good government.”

“I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”

Possibly, the following quote is the most relevant: “That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.”

Think about what Jefferson said/wrote… from this we can glean the principles upon which our republic was founded and more clearly recognize the lack of discipline that we display today. I find it hard to fathom that the likes of those who “lead” us in Congress are more disciplined than we in determining the direction we should be taking in living our lives. Our founding principles are now unheard amidst the screaming from both sides. And to me, worst of all, the noise from the right has caused the knee jerk reaction that has shifted the political pendulum completely to the left.

We’ve lost the ability to hear logically what Jefferson said so many years ago. And now it seems inevitable that all that we have worked for is headed in a dangerously different direction. I fear the differences of opinion are based on differences in principle, a dramatic detour from the Jeffersonian map.

I acknowledge and applaud Obama’s victory. As a political junkie, I respect what he accomplished. He worked tirelessly and effectively to convey his message. His was a message that voters thought they wanted to hear. He is the refreshing messenger, but one who espouses what history has shown to be a failed approach to governance. His troublesome message is lost in the delivery.

Remember Jefferson’s words.

When Newt Gingrich and others speak of their desire to see Obama fail, I know that they share this concern. They fear the direction our country is headed. They fear government’s enhanced involvement in all aspects of our lives. They fear government control of contracts at all levels – government running our businesses, government controlling our wages, government determining who is deserving and who is not. And government taking a “progressively” larger piece, year after year, of the wealth that America’s most productive individuals create. They fear government ownership of America’s businesses–So do I. So should we all. Remember Jefferson’s words.

Let’s not get wrapped up in pointing the fingers of blame, and an approach that simply polarizes the debate and demonizes the successful. Nothing makes me madder than when I see the bumper sticker that was mentioned in one of The Maroon-News columns. “I will give your President the same respect you gave mine.” I respect the Presidency. Nothing upsets me more when I hear the garbage spewed by Olberman and Hannity–to me, this shows a total disregard for Jeffersonian principles… respect and honest debate, grounded in the principles that created our country.

For those of us who disagree, it is our responsibility to engage, respectfully. One last quote from Jefferson: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

Let’s make sure that we are worthy of this trust. Follow his map.