Americans – some in celebration, others in foreign policy discussions – have declared in the past month that “We got Osama Bin Laden.”
Fascinating where the word “we” pops up nowadays. Sports language is full of “we” isms. In descriptions of our favorite sports teams people say, “We won!” “We lost.” “We looked terrible.”
Where citizens don’t see as much “we,” is in public discourse, civic engagement and public policy. But as the decision to raise the debt ceiling looms, it will be interesting to see how long this “we” spirit envelops our nation.
Now, you might argue that a smaller we is doing the work of the larger we, something our middle school teachers called representative government.
I wouldn’t quarrel with that, but I’d ask you to consider an alternate perspective of “us and them,” something The Kansas Leadership Center calls “usual” and “unusual” voices.
A few citizens, we’ll call them usual voices, regularly engage important public issues such as education funding, public employee retirement plans and rising Medicare costs. These citizens have titles like city council member, legislator, or CEO.
The vast majority of citizens, however, are not engaged. They’re just as busy, but they don’t influence the advancement or defeat of such issues as much as their lives are influenced by such issues. They might be nurses, social workers, factory managers, cooks and drivers.
The problem is, these two groups operate in isolation.
Usual voices often enter conversations so focused on their own solutions that they pay little attention to how they engage others. Sort of like the war of words between Congress and The White House: Raising the debt ceiling only with tax cuts, or raising the ceiling with limited cuts and possible tax hikes.
The unusual voices, on the other hand, remain willfully unengaged, though they may complain about school funding cuts, bemoan slow revitalization on blighted areas, or vote the bums out when they get too upset.
But little changes. And little will change until communities fashion a different type of engagement.
Through intense listening, The Kansas Leadership Center came to believe progress on tough challenges can’t be made by usual voices alone. Leadership requires usual and unusual voices to share responsibility for failures as well as for the eventual progress everyone wants.
Why? Because daunting issues aren’t improved via top-down policy. They improve via cultural shifts we can cultivate but can’t simply dictate.
And this is more possible than you might realize. We do this all the time.
Sort of like, yes, “we” the Kansas Jayhawks won yet another Big 12 title and yes, “we” the Wichita State Shockers won the “NIT.” Like when we shout and stomp from the stands, “We wil rock you!”
So if “we,” usual and unusual voices together get involved earlier and often, we can raise the debt ceiling under terms we all can live with.
We could do that, and a whole lot more.
Mark E. McCormick is Director of Communications of the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) . This column is part of the KLC Commentary Service, which produces a free, monthly column for Kansas news outlets and civic organizational newsletters, websites and blogs. Reproduction is granted without authorization with KLC Commentary Service attribution.