The Edmond Sun

April 18, 2012

UCO speaker: Congress lacks will to solve problems

Mark Schlachtenhaufen
The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — A huge sense of unease exists in America about difference, change and a sense that we can’t talk to one another and solve problems, a democracy advocate said Wednesday.

George Mehaffy, founder of the American Democracy Project, made the remarks Wednesday afternoon at the University of Central Oklahoma, which hosted a civic engagement conference. Mehaffy recalled what the ADP has learned during the past 10 years and future challenges.

UCO was a charter member of the project and hosted the first regional conference in 2004. UCO President Don Betz, who will be inaugurated Friday afternoon at Hamilton Field House, was a key member of the think tank that created the American Democracy Project, Mehaffy said.

It began in 2003 as an initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in partnership with The New York Times. It focuses on higher education’s role in preparing the next generation of informed, engaged citizens for the American democracy.

When it was established, the nation had just been through the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mehaffy said.

“We had a series of bewilderments and puzzlements on the part of the American people about where we were and where we were going,” Mehaffy said. “I wish I could say we solved those problems. But, in fact, in many respects those circumstances are worse today than they were in 2003.”

Mehaffy mentioned the sense of unease and that the nation is headed in the wrong direction. A prime example of the inability to talk and solve problems is Congress.

“People are essentially shut down and saying we’re not going to do anything, and that will persist to November of this year,” Mehaffy said, referring to the coming election.

Mehaffy said the surrounding environment includes a wild excess of money stemming from things like the political fundraising groups known as superpacs. Creating electoral districts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group creates many districts that are no longer competitive.

It also includes the 24/7 news cycle. Many Americans are watching broadcasts supporting their opinions, Mehaffy said.

“We are increasingly isolated from the opinions of others,” he said.

Other examples are the nature of the blogosphere and permanent campaigns in Washington. The minute politicians arrive in the city, they are already asking for money.

“You can’t, it seems to me, be a legitimate leader while you constantly have your hand out,” Mehaffy said. “It just creates an enormously challenging environment for all of them.”

For more than 200 years, American-style democracy has been a shining beacon, Mehaffy said. It has been the most successful experiment of self-government in history, he said.

“The question for all of us is, ‘Are we going to be able to preserve and sustain it?’” Mehaffy said.

Mehaffy closed with the often retold story about Ben Franklin when he was approached by a woman after he had exited the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The woman reportedly asked, “Doctor Franklin, what sort of government have we created?”

Mehaffy mentioned that the convention was supposed to be a secret. Franklin is said to have replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

“If we can keep it,” Mehaffy said to the audience. “So the question for each of you, and me, is the sun rising or setting on the greatest experiment in self-governance in the history of humankind?”

Mehaffy said he hopes all of those who attended the conference are contributing to a positive answer as the nation moves forward. | 341-2121, ext. 108