Mark Kelly: A confidence crisis of our politicians' making

Monday, September 17, 2012

Of all the initiatives that Gabby and I have considered supporting since retiring, changing the tenor of our national conversation is the most important. We must turn down the dial on the language and tone of our political dialogue in order to make it possible to engage on ideas and more effectively deal with all the challenges facing our country. For this reason, we join with the National Institute for Civil Discourse to address the unprecedented confidence crisis that we face.

A growing number of respected polls have shown that Americans are dissatisfied with Congress. According to new data recently released by the institute, a majority of American voters have lost confidence in their elected leaders' ability to solve the problems that plague our country. They are more than just dissatisfied. They believe that our elected officials actually cannot do their jobs. This confidence crisis threatens to undermine the fabric of our political institutions and our ability to govern.

Though there are multiple factors contributing to the confidence crisis, the institute's research found that the unwillingness of leaders to talk with each other was strongly linked with their inability to solve problems in the minds of voters. When asked to identify obstacles to elected officials getting our country's problems solved, 83% of respondents cited the lack of respectful dialogue in our political system and 90% cited politicians' unwillingness to cross party lines.

The confidence crisis is born of choices made by public officials and candidates to employ divisive and misleading language. This divisive rhetoric undermines trust between our leaders and renders problem solving impossible.

Words count, a lot. It sounds simple, but it's true. What we say and how we say it matters. Gabby knew this, and it was a principle that guided her during her time in Congress. Gabby made a purposeful and thoughtful effort to always work across the aisle to forge bipartisan solutions to our nation's problems. While she might have disagreed with others on issues, she never allowed that disagreement to result in heated or disrespectful rhetoric. The challenge we face is to persuade our leaders to engage in the constructive conversation needed to reach pragmatic solutions.

The presidency of Ronald Reagan is often invoked as a time when politics "worked." One way it worked was through the grand compromises that he and former speaker of the House Tip O'Neil brokered on pivotal issues such as Social Security and tax reform. Here are the words that Reagan chose to describe their relationship: "Our friendship is testimony to the political system that we're part of and the country we live in, a country which permits two not-so-shy and not-so-retiring Irishmen to have it out on the issues rather than on each other or their countrymen."

We call upon the current generation of leaders to do as Reagan and O'Neil did: to immediately set aside name-calling and personal vendettas and to "have it out" on the important policy problems facing our nation. We encourage rigorous debate that will allow citizens to cast informed votes at the ballot box and leaders to make thoughtful decisions in Congress and in statehouses around the country.

Today, Citizenship Day, kicks off Constitution Week. What better time than now to remember that the Constitution begins with the words, "We the people of the United States." As such, we are called upon to be active partners in our government, not merely consumers.

It's not just leaders' words that are important. Your words count, too. As citizens, each of us has a responsibility to stop shouting, start listening and begin choosing powerful and appropriate words.

Every solution starts with a conversation. Today, we call on all Americans to join the conversation at YourWordsCount.org. By honoring the role that civil discourse has played in the history of our democracy, and holding our leaders to that standard today, we can begin to solve problems and restore the confidence we have lost.

Can we count on your words to help overcome the confidence crisis? Please join us.

Mark Kelly is a former astronaut and retired captain in the United States Navy. He is the husband of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords