The Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick recently published the results of its “This I Believe” project.
The initiative asked individuals experienced with state government to reflect on the lessons learned between March, 2020, and January, 2021, as the nation was jarred by pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing demonstrations, the 2020 election, and, finally, the January 6 siege on the United States Capitol Building.
Eagleton director John J. Farmer, Jr., a former State of New Jersey Attorney General, noted that the short essays “are by turns introspective and intensely personal, grief-stricken and hopeful, but also outward-facing and political, animated by a passion for social justice and progress, both despairing and optimistic; read together, they are an offering, almost a prayer, lifting up to the transcendent mysteries we all face our hopes for a brighter tomorrow.”
They also are part of an ongoing and uncomfortable conversation on how to manage a healthy democracy — something that the nation’s founders learned and the subject of the story on page 10.
As New Jersey slowly reopens from the pandemic emergency and faces the Fourth of July, it seems a positive time to share excerpts of the statements and renew a commitment to democracy.
John Farmer: We have lost sight of how fragile our democratic republic is among nations. The absence of an American religion, or ethnicity, or culture, means that our nation lacks elements that stifle individual initiative and choke off opportunity in other countries, to be sure, but those elements also provide cohesion and identity. What defines us as a nation — the only thing that defines us as a nation — is a shared commitment to political ideals that sometimes conflict — liberty and equality — and to the constitutional framework we the people have adopted to mediate those conflicts and, in doing so, to define what those ideals mean for each generation.
Over the course of my adult life, that fabric of shared understandings has become frayed. We have embraced what former President Carter called “a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path,” he foresaw, “would be one of constant conflict among narrow interests, ending in chaos and immobility.” In the process, we lost sight of our debt to history, to our unfulfilled commitment to equality, to the basic social justice imperative of ensuring that black and brown and Asian lives matter.
My hope is that our drift toward the “mistaken idea of freedom” has been laid bare by our deadly inability to respond as a unified community to the pandemic, by the disproportionate deaths in vulnerable communities, by the murder of George Floyd and the killings of others, and by the wave of “chaos and immobility” that crested in the United States Capitol on January 6.
Our commitment to the dignity and value of each individual life as the basis for legitimate government is relatively new to world history, and is openly scorned by authoritarian regimes that work every day to undermine it. It requires much of us: humility in accepting that even our deeply held convictions may be wrong; civility in understanding and working through our differences; equality in lifting up our most vulnerable communities.
Former Governor James J. Florio: I now believe that Democracy is a much more fragile institution for governance than I previously thought. Accordingly, we all must make a greater commitment to civic education and involvement. When someone as flawed as the former president gains power and comes as close to retaining it for a full eight years, we risk changing our nation into an unrecognizable form.
We require a restored sense of collective responsibility as opposed to living in isolated separation “doing our own thing,” rather than forming deliberative national goals.
The vehicle for such a move starts with rejection of the view that “Government is not the answer, it is the problem.” Government is not inherently good or bad. It is a tool which in the hands of honest competent people of good faith is essential for an orderly society. We have not had that for a few years.
I believe that can change if we can get citizens engaged in and informed about public policy issues. The fact is that our democratic system does not work unless we all work at making it work. That’s the challenge.
Impact NJ Managing Partner and Visiting Eagleton Associate Michael Murphy: Our nation suffered two tragic challenges over the last 12 months, one occurred in nature and the other arose in the political theater.
In early March, 2020, the world was taken by surprise with the advent of a global pandemic, the likes of which we as a species had not seen since the “Spanish Influenza of 1918” during which over 50 million people lost their lives. Despite the fact that the federal administration downplayed the severity of the pestilence, American scientists, physicians, and pharmaceutical companies rose to the challenge and in less than a year vaccines were created, developed, and produced, saving countless lives.
The silver lining in this ominous cloud is found in the genius, resiliency, and creativity of the country’s healthcare apparatus. A seemingly intractable crisis is now in the process of being brought under control.
The second crisis culminated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 of this year. Had this treasonous insurrection been the product of spontaneity I might take some comfort in that belief. Tragically, in my estimation, the demonstrative assault that day was seeded by falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and baseless fears promoted by people who care not for a continuation of the American Experiment but to consolidate power in a neo fascist state.
The latter crisis is far more troubling than the former. Our institutions and constitutional framework are under attack. People of conscience are obligated to rise to this challenge with the same focus and vision as the scientific community did in addressing the pandemic.
I am reminded of the advice freely and thoughtfully given to me by my late father, former governor and chief justice Richard J. Hughes, “Michael, always do the next right thing. Your conscience will be clear, and you will be proud of the results.”
Visiting Eagleton Associate and NJ Spotlight co-founder Ingrid W. Reed: These past four years including our COVID time have reinforced my long-held belief that every person has human rights that ideally we resolve to respect — and that includes the right and responsibility to have a say in how we live together.
I have struggled with whether it is enough to focus on the individual — maybe as the first value, but what is the value of the group, or individuals with shared values, acting together for what I vaguely say is our common good.
For many, many years, I have carried something around in my head that makes me ask that question. My parents each immigrated to this country from Germany in the 1920s. Each was the only person from his or her family to do so, adventuresome, impatient with post-World War I life. They met here, married, and started a family in 1935 while each of their families remained to face the horrors of Hitler and another war.
At some point as I listened in, discussions arose among my parents’ friends about how awful it was that Hitler was in power. I remember several times hearing that Hitler would never have been elected if the parties on the left — or the opposing groups — had been able to agree … if the splinters had not occurred, if they had found a way to work together. I don’t know the history of the Weimar Republic and that time to place blame, but I can ask how we should think about the importance of committed individuals to recognize a mission greater than their own beliefs. What does it take to wisely put not personal values but personal strategies aside for a larger goal?
Skip ahead to our recent history, as Trump became more frequently seen as a possible Hitler, the fear that he might be re-elected was fueled by the specter of a splintering Democratic party as candidate after candidate came forward, some with strong beliefs and followers. I kept thinking of Germany and the conversations of my elders placing blame. But, in known and unknown ways, as the presidential election drew closer, the committed and certainly qualified candidates moved in ways that solidified instead of splintered the movement needed to forestall a future that had great potential to undermine the rights and responsibilities of each individual guaranteed in our country.
I realize that the faith in individuals means that there is the potential for groups to form to address the challenges to our democracy. And, we see that even as we fight disease that remains among us.
Former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice and State Attorney General Peter G. Verniero: I believe in the power of the written and spoken word. Words should inform but not mislead. They should be candid, even blunt when necessary, but are best when constructive. They should lift us up whenever possible, not weigh us down. My words usually are serious. Humorous, entertaining, or lighthearted words have purpose, too. Words help us organize our life and society. They do so in small ways, like when we write notes to family and friends. And in big ways, like when elected officials or judges write laws or decrees. Words allow us to express our compassion, tolerance, and faith. And to resolve disputes peacefully, under the rule of law.
Words are essential to my profession, the legal profession. Used effectively, words can advance a client’s worthy cause. Used justly, they can convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent. Words in a judicial opinion are especially important. Conscientious judges will pause over every word, sentence, and paragraph to ensure that opinions are clear, concise, and consistent with the judiciary’s high standards. A judicial opinion, of course, must be more than simply well written. It also must reflect the court’s best judgment after applying the law to the facts. And it must embody a sense of fairness and justice, all via its words.
. . . In this sensitive time in the life of our country, here’s a possible rule to live by: Let’s be careful with our words. We should speak our minds independently and freely. But let’s do so thoughtfully and respectfully as well. We should insist that governmental officials do the same, irrespective of their political party or role in the system. And let’s hope that journalists, opinion leaders, and news outlets will use the awesome power of their words to advance our public discourse in fair, inclusive, and honest ways. Words have never been more powerful and in need of more integrity.
Eagleton Associate Director, Director of Education Programs and Center on the American Governor John Weingart: One of lessons of the past year is that in times of widespread crisis we turn to government and that government has done a pretty good job of rising to the occasion. In place of derogatory references to bureaucrats and bureaucracy, we have over the past 15 months consistently looked to those individuals and agencies for expertise to help grapple with unprecedented sickness, uncertainty, and fear. We may question or criticize the substance of some decisions or the ways in which they have been communicated but there have been few calls for government to get out of the way and, for example, let the private sector handle the essential policy- and decision-making.
Yet too often, government is thought of as “them” as opposed to “us.” Why don’t they do this better or faster or differently? Why don’t they exercise common sense? What were they thinking? Etc.
My suggestion is that as we have come to appreciate, support, and encourage front-line workers, we do the same for people who work in all parts of the government. We should encourage more students to consider careers in the public sector and help their families and friends understand that government — even when called bureaucracy — is a noble calling, and that we all benefit when smart, talented, and caring people are drawn to it.
For more voices in the Eagleton Institute’s “This I Believe Project,” visit eagleton.rutgers.edu/this-we-believe.