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Nancy Landon Kassebaum, U.S. Senator from Kansas
107th Landon Lecture
September 9, 1996

 

The Intersection of Hope and Doubt

 

When I came to the Senate in 1978, there were deep and gnawing doubts about the future of America and our role in the world. At home, inflation was rampant, interest rates were soaring, and the economy seemed permanently stuck in what came to be called "stagflation." Abroad, we faced the grinding, relentless burden of the global Cold War and the rising dangers of state-sponsored terrorism. America seemed to have become the "pitiftil, helpless giant" of President Nixon's fears, paralyzed by a malaise that President Carter made the mistake of highlighting.

As I leave the Senate nearly two decades later, America stands as the sole world superpower. The Cold War has been relegated to a dark and seemingly distant past. The Berlin Wall has been shattered literally into a billion souvenirs that hold down nothing more than paper. Our economy is by far the largest, strongest, healthiest and most competitive on the face of the earth.

We should enjoy great confidence as we enter the 21st century.

But still we remain hemmed in by doubts, worries and concerns. We are better informed than any other generation in human history, but we doubt the utility of our knowledge. We live longer and healthier lives, but believe genuinely that our quality of life is deteriorating. Our liberty is more secure than ever before, yet we long for a past era of freedom that exists more in our minds than in our history. The steady growth of our economy provides little comfort to university graduates looking for a first job or older workers laid off in the latest corporate restructuring.

America has always lived at the intersection where hope meets doubt. The anxiety we are experiencing is not new. As we address today's problems and clear our path to tomorrow, we would be wise to seek advice from yesterday.

Teddy Roosevelt's inaugural observation a century ago could easily describe America today. "Our forefathers faced certain perils which we have outgrown," he said. "We now face other perils, the very existence of which it was impossible that they should foresee."

Roosevelt and the progressive leaders at the turn of the last century--including our own William Allen White--found themselves struggling to reconcile the structure of our constitutional government with the realities of broad changes in our society.

They were neither the first nor the last generation in our history to face this struggle.

In the first half of the 19th century, the westward expansion and the liberating influence of the frontier changed our society, and we adapted the republic to fit the new agitation for popular involvement in our democracy.

In the second half of that century, we changed our politics to accommodate the tremendous social changes spawned by industrialization. Labor and workplace issues, as well as economic issues, moved from the realm of private matters to center stage in our public discussions.

In the first half of this century, we struggled to make our democratic institutions fit the reality of America as a world power.

And now, as this century draws to a close, we again are witnessing broad social changes beyond our ability to control. We have again "outgrown" the perils of the past, and we are suffering growing pains as our democracy struggles to adapt to the new realities.

Nearly two years ago, Americans elected Republican majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time in a generation. As self-described "revolutionaries," House Republicans often went too far in their efforts to reduce and redefine federal power. But the goal took on an air of inevitability as even President Clinton was forced to declare that "the era of big government is over.

In fact, that era was fading long before President Clinton acknowledged it and even well before Republicans gained congressional power. The Republican victory and the president's concession were not the beginnings of a new era. They were, rather, the confirmation of a fundamental change that flows from underlying trends that have been reshaping both our government and our society.

The forces now tugging at our society are many and varied. But I believe there are three that sum up the changes now under way in America.

First, we face a revolution in technology that is fundamentally reorganizing our lives.

When I entered the Senate two decades ago, the computer industry was still in its infancy. Today computers are a centerpiece of nearly every office and most homes. The telecommunications industry has exploded with satellite broadcasts, fax machines, cellular telephones and a host of other devices.

These changes have directly affected our politics. Lobbyists in Washington can generate thousands of "grass roots" letters from Kansans on any issue that affects them. Talk radio hosts, CNN and C-SPAN can activate their many listeners to rally around the issue of the day.

And yet, while all of us have more information, it is not clear that we are making better decisions. If our democracy has become more direct and interactive for many Americans, it also has become less reflective for us all. This trend toward "instant democracy" weakens the ability of our institutions of government at all levels to, as Madison put it, "refine and enlarge the public views."

But the more profound effect of the technology revolution may be the indirect effect on our democracy through profound changes in the structure of society itself.

Both political parties have come to focus on the social ills in our society. But too often, I believe, the debate misses the point. We ask whether it takes a village or a family to raise a child, when to most Americans the obvious truth is that it takes both and that government has little role to play in either.

Our social problems are real, and their causes are many and varied. But changing technology is a common denominator in many of them.

The disintegration of our communities has been assisted by the high mobility of people and families moving often from city to city.

The flight of talent and businesses from our inner cities and the weakening of Main Street in our small towns has been made possible by the ability to drive the family car or take mass transit to impersonal shopping malls in the suburbs.

The difficult debate about access to health care in our society has at its core the high cost of treatment--much of which is driven by the ever-expanding miracle of modern medical technology.

And, while the breakdown in our families and the general decline in civic involvement have many causes, there can be no doubt that every hour spent watching television is an hour not spent playing with children or talking with a spouse or volunteering in church or community activities.

Increasingly, our lives seem chopped into isolated segments of home, school, work, church, friends and family rather than a coherent, connected whole. Each piece is strung together by an extended web of transportation or telecommunication or other technologies now at our disposal.

None of this is to criticize advances in technology, which have contributed tremendously to our society as a whole. But we are less than frank if we deny that we have not yet come to grips with all the effects of the new tools we have invented.

The second force reshaping America is the growing disconnection between the people--the ultimate source of power in a democracy--and the government at all levels but particularly the federal government. Ironically, while more Americans than ever before are informed about and active in our federal affairs, many of our citizens have concluded that Washington is more remote to them than ever before, and growing more annoying by the day.

But the federal government is not our only problem, and shrinking it--while important--will not alone solve our ills.

We propose to return more power and authority to our state and local governments. But local solutions without local involvement will do little to reinvigorate our democracy.

How many in this room--in a great institution of higher learning--can name the members of the Kansas Board of Regents, much less know their views on important matters? How many here have attended a school board meeting or a meeting of the city or county commission, much less tried to influence any of their decisions?

I have been a firm believer in local decision making since my days on the Maize school board, but I also have come to understand that where a decision is made can be less important than whether citizens take the time and effort to try to influence it.

If leaders at all levels pull together with citizens, we can open the way to an era of civic revival. If that teamwork fails, the challenges will multiply and opportunities will evaporate.

While the loss of community and disconnection from government may seem abstract, they form a powertul interaction with each other and with a third, concrete fact of our national life. That is the relentless and seemingly unstoppable growth of our national debt. While our yearly federal deficit has shrunk markedly in the past four years, the total debt and its unavoidable interest payments continue to rise.

The growth of the debt in recent years is nothing short of astonishing. In the first 200 years of our nation's existence, the total national debt was less than $1 trillion. In just the past 20 years, that debt has skyrocketed to nearly $5 trillion. At a minimum, U.S. taxpayers will spend $1.8 trillion--yes, trillion--in the next six years just for interest on the national debt.

The federal budget each year is more than a sum of numbers in ledgers--it is the sum total of decisions that together we have made about the nature and future of our government. Our deficit shows not just an imbalance in our national pocketbook but an imbalance in our national thinking.

Dealing with the budget deficit is unpopular. Simple math tells us that any honest effort to balance the budget must find significant savings in the entitlement accounts--Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and other direct payments to individuals that now consume roughly 60 percent of the federal budget. Steps such as means-testing Medicare or raising the retirement age for Social Security are among the most effective ways to bring federal spending under control. But even discussing those options is highly unpopular with a majority of Americans, in large part because we lack leadership that is able and willing to make a clear, compelling case for such necessary, long-term action.

Yet, failing to deal with the budget deficit is equally unpopular. Federal budget numbers are selfindicting and suggest to most Americans that the federal government has become too large, too bloated and too disconnected from reality. Our failure to work out a long-term budget agreement in this Congress was among the most serious disappointments of my Senate career. While Republican majorities in Congress often demonstrated great political courage in speaking the truth about what should be done, we never provided the legislative skill to succeed.

These three trends in technology, civic involvement and fiscal reality paint a troubling portrait of our republic at the close of the 2Oth century. But we have faced grim times before, and our nation has emerged from them all the stronger. I believe the promise of this moment in history is very large, but the dangers and difficulties also loom ominously.

America is in a period of transition with no clear guideposts pointing the way to the future. We are not alone--Russia, China, Europe, Latin America and Africa all are affected by many of the same social and economic forces that are driving change here at home.

In our time, we again face what President Eisenhower called "the recurring temptation" to believe that "some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties." Today, our frustration tempts us with term limits, lobbying reform, campaign finance reform, applying private-sector laws to Congress, and a host of other so-called reforms. Whatever their merits may be, we know in our hearts that these are not real solutions to our most difficult problems.

Half a century of growing federal power and rising national debt cannot be reversed in a single Congress nor even, perhaps, in a single decade. But I am confident those trends will be reversed over time because the demand for that change does not flow only from Congress and the Republican party, but from the most basic power of our democracy--our citizens.

If we want governments--federal, state, and local--that can help us solve the problems in our lives, we must be prepared to engage in the never-ending and tedious process of continual oversight and review of our government. There simply is no substitute for persistence and vigilance in our public affairs.

In both domestic and foreign policy, America has built a structure of institutions, policies and programs that were vital to overcoming the Depression, winning World War II, and withstanding the terrors of the Cold War. Now, the Depression is long past, World War II is history, and the Cold War has been won. It is time, in fact it is essential, that we build a new structure to fit present realities both at home and abroad.

It is not enough that we are prepared to do away with programs and institutions that are flawed. We must also be prepared to advocate solutions to the problems that remain.

The voters are not demanding that we abandon families in poverty, cut off health care to the needy, or turn our backs on the elderly and the disadvantaged. To the contrary, most people are distraught not because we are doing these things, but because we are doing them poorly. What people are demanding is a more effective approach that produces real results.

I believe we must revive an old approach from the early days of our democracy--a genuine federal-state-local-and-private partnership in which government seeks the best match of needs, resources, and accountability.

If we are to meet the challenge of restructuring our government to our times, we must rededicate ourselves to education in all its forms. The rapid changes in the workplace demand that we strengthen our training and continuing education programs to help working men and women prepare for the jobs that are available.

But we also must strengthen our commitment to liberal education and to the basics if we are to adapt well to the technological revolution. The only solution that will allow us to sort through the glut of information now before us is an education that provides context and touchstones to guide each of us along the way.

No dogma or ideology can substitute in a free society for the best energies and ideas that each of our minds has to offer.

And, no policy in Washington or Topeka can substitute for the active involvement of a community in setting high standards for its schools and insisting that those standards be met. Education is the foundation on which all else that is good in our society rests. In a very real sense, our teachers, our school administrators and our community members and businesses who actively participate in educating our children serve the highest calling of democracy.

Finally, as in every period of turmoil, the challenges and opportunities ahead will place a high premium on bold and effective leadership and on informed and active citizenship. If leaders and citizens pull together, we can open the way to an era of civic revival. If that teamwork fails, the challenges will multiply and opportunities will evaporate.

Real leadership takes risks. While many Americans criticize our government as "out of touch," the reality is that never before have so many of our leaders worked so hard to discover what the public wants and then to follow it. Polling and focus groups and rapid communications keep our public officials more in touch with public opinion than ever before.

Indeed, we are often so closely in touch that we are buffeted by swings in the public mood. And, without leadership to point out the contradictions, the result is the sort of disconnect between desires and sacrifices that has led to our budget problems.

Real leadership is informed by the public mood, but it does more than just follow the polls. Real leadership offers ideas, defends them and refines them when better ideas come along.

Real leadership is not just continual campaigning--it is governance. It tries thoughtfully to understand and make sense of the dramatic changes in. our society. Real leadership, in short, seeks to bring coherence to the perpetual chaos of democracy.

Citizenship itself is an indispensable form of leadership. And citizenship takes time--time to listen, time to care, time to reflect, and time to participate.

The strength of education, as I said earlier, rises or falls on the leadership and commitment of communities and local people.

Crime, too, can be stopped only at home. Washington can help, and so can Topeka. But in the end, we will cut our crime rate only if we have dedicated and capable local prosecutors, strong schools and churches that offer our young people alternatives, active neighborhood watch programs, social programs that match the needs of the local community, local police whose professionalism and dedication is beyond question, and a strong community network that binds us together to face a common problem.

It is not enough that we watch the evening news and maybe read a newspaper, that we pay our taxes and vote. Our duties as citizens go beyond that--to know what decisions are before our communities and our state and to take part in shaping them.

Much has been made of the rising influence of the so-called "social conservative wing" of the Republican Party in Kansas. I differ with the views of this movement's leaders on a number of important issues. But I have deep respect for the manner in which they have pushed, from the grassroots, their issues forward on our state's agenda.

They have organized locally, they have vigorously advanced their arguments and recruited candidates, and they have made a case to which many voters have responded.

When Benjamin Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in that hot summer of 1776, he was asked what the delegates had wrought. He replied: "A republic--if you can keep it."

Ours is a delicate system of government. Its durability comes not from the words on the parchment of our Constitution but from the determination of each generation of Americans before us to give those words life and meaning for their times.

We bear that same responsibility.

I believe that we can secure in our time a system of free government that will endure another two centuries and more.

I believe that we possess the humility to know that God gave none of us a monopoly on truth or wisdom and to work together in respect for one another.

I believe that we can fit our ever-changing government to our needs today and again tomorrow and that our timeless heritage of personal liberty and free government will rise time and again above the passions and fears of the moment.

And I, like my father, still "look forward to the America that is to be."

Thank you very much.