The political changes patriotism didn't bring

It's time to say it again. The patriotic fervor in the days following Sept. 11 has been reduced to a murmur. Its promise for a new day in media coverage, politics, and civic responsibility has brought almost nothing. But it isn't too late.

There is hard work to do if we choose not to squander the feelings of community activism. But there are no quick fixes. Actions must go deeper, and be more lasting. At the core of the issue is conduct in politics – what is said and done in political life matters, especially as the country approaches the November midterm elections.

For months following last year's attacks, Americans made efforts to donate to relief funds and wave the flag. Public opinion polls showed that Americans' trust in government had gone up; news media coverage carried a more serious tone.

When it came to politics, new claims of bi-partisanship and civility emerged from the lips of Washington's political leaders. Congressional members joined hands and sang "God Bless America" on the steps of the Capitol. The opportunity for change was everywhere. Instead, Americans only heard calls to buy more products to bolster the economy and volunteer more to lift the nation's spirits. The Olympics, Super Bowl, Major League Baseball, and other sporting events became flag-waving shows.

But this newly discovered patriotism has had little or no lasting effect. In a Harwood Institute/Gallup survey this January, just months after Sept. 11, Americans said that they expected the conduct of political leaders, news media, and citizens to be about the same or worse than in previous years.

As we enter the dog days of the 2002 elections, we know those predictions were right. In California, the nation's largest state – over 50 percent of voters like neither candidate for governor. In Maryland, one candidate recently was called a "Nazi" by a campaign consultant. In Alabama, campaign ads regularly tag another candidate as a "serial liar." And in Iowa, a sitting congressman said about his US Senate opponent: "It will be mind-blowing. You've never seen a campaign where anyone will attack him like we're going to ... with a smile on our face."

No wonder voting returns in the recent 2002 primary elections were a bare 17 percent. And just when you thought the situation could not get worse, FOX Television, on the heels of its gigantic success with "American Idol," announced a new competition show, "American Candidate." FOX will spend millions of dollars on a nationwide contest to crown an ordinary American who will pretend to run for president in 2004.

Our politics have returned to being acrimonious and shallow, which cheapens public life and makes a farce out of the issues people care so deeply about. No amount of consumerism, flag waving, television extravaganzas, or even volunteerism will fundamentally improve politics in this nation.

We still have time to move beyond superficial or simply symbolic patriotic responses. But more politicians must finally decide to stand up and declare their views on issues, explain why they hold them, and set a tone of forthright and passionate debate. More news media must work to help people come to truly know about the issues and to leave room in their coverage for their viewers and readers to form their own judgments.

And citizens must move beyond complaining about the state of politics and take responsibility for informing themselves on the issues, talk with their friends and neighbors, and get involved to make change happen.

In civic forums held by The Harwood Institute across the nation this past spring, people sounded the message that they are seeking a political climate in which opposing viewpoints are allowed, in which character is of genuine concern, and in which all people and all perspectives have a voice.

The challenge is clear: Exercise a deeper form of patriotism, one rooted in an uncompromising devotion and love of country that calls for examining and changing conduct in political life. Each of us must assume responsibility for this task. The time to act is now.

• Richard C. Harwood is president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and director of the New Patriotism Project.

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