Saddled with a nearly $15 trillion national debt, high unemployment, petty partisanship in Washington and a growing sense of pessimism about the future, America is at a crossroads.
That is the bad news.
The good news is that each generation of Americans, “once tested, has risen to the challenge,” U.S. Senator Mark Kirk said during his lecture, “The Meaning of Democracy and Civic Engagement,” on November 6.
“Young Americans cannot be stopped,” he said to a large audience at Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. “But we who are currently in charge must free them of debt, denial and default so their full potential can be realized.”
The talk by the Republican senator from Illinois was part of the Democracy Forum, a yearlong series of lectures that illuminates the problems and promise of democracy and civic engagement.
No place on Earth does democracy better than the U.S., Kirk noted, quoting German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who in 1885 said, “God always looks after fools, drunks and the United States of America.’’
But the worsening economic crisis in Europe and its potential impact on the American economy could be “a new test of our generation’s commitment to self-government.”
Difficult choices to be made
The stock market crash of 1929 did not become the Great Depression until the summer of 1931, after a credit crisis swept across Europe when Germany could no longer keep up with its debts from World War I. The crisis quickly crossed the Atlantic, leading to bank failures “right here in the heartland.”
“The lesson is that we ignore Europe at our peril,” he said.
The senator, who has a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and a law degree from Georgetown University, said the economic crisis in Greece is particularly worrisome and could destabilize all of southern Europe and endanger the U.S., which faces “a debt reckoning of our own.”
But there is more good news. Polls show that what Kirk called the 9/11 generation of Americans is highly patriotic and wants what their grandparents wanted—leaders who will level with them, roll up their sleeves and then do the hard work necessary to “ensure America’s comeback.”
There are difficult choices to be made, he said, including an all-out assault on the nation’s debt and addiction to borrowing. The politically perilous tasks of reforming Social Security and Medicare also must be taken on, even as each day 10,000 Baby Boomers qualify for both programs.
If those hard decisions are made, the senator said, “our future is brighter than ever.”
That is a big if. Partisanship in Washington, particularly in the halls and chambers of the United States Senate, is out of control and hurting the country, Kirk said.
Before his election to the Senate in 2010, Kirk served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as a congressman for Illinois’ 10th Congressional District. He said almost every bill or amendment he introduced in the House included at least one Democrat as a partner.
But life in the Senate is so divided along party lines that even lunch is a partisan affair.
Three times a week, Republican senators have lunch together in one dining room, while the Democrats eat together somewhere else.
Lunch across the aisle
“I decided to break free from the partisan lock that was the lunch culture in the Senate,” Kirk said.
He and a fellow Senate newcomer, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, started holding a bipartisan lunch every Thursday, “inviting all comers.”
“Sometimes we’ll have up to six to seven senators,” Kirk said. “Most times it’s just us. We are unfavored children because we break free. The Democrats do not like that Joe is sitting down with me each week. Some Republicans also don’t like that I am breaking free.”
But while Democratic and Republican senators might not be eating together very often, they are trying to be more bipartisan when it comes to tackling the nation’s deficit, Kirk said.
Six senators—three Republicans and three Democrats—formed “the Gang of Six” to support and push President Barack Obama’s Deficit Commission Report, which calls for reforming Social Security and Medicare, ending agricultural subsidies and wiping out lobbyist-friendly tax loopholes.
“It’s one of the most detailed sets of bipartisan solutions that you can find,’’ Kirk said, adding that the Gang of Six, using the 65-page report, has been recruiting senators from both sides of the aisle to join them.
“I am one of their recruits,” Kirk said. “Now we have a group that I would loosely call the Mob of 45—Republicans and Democrats who back this bipartisan solution.
“We can only solve this problem by joining together.”