Mark W. Schwiebert

Mark W. Schwiebert

As an increasing number of candidates announce their intention to run for president, a topic of keen interest involves how, in choosing our nation’s leader, we can build coalitions of common concern to address the shared problems many in our country are currently experiencing.

Perhaps one of the greatest areas of concern - and of opportunity - relates to the sense of disenfranchisement many feel due to facing economic peril. This problem reaches across the social and political spectrum. From older folks living on fixed incomes, to younger persons faced with limited job opportunities and heavy student debt, to those living in inner cities with limited educational opportunities, to farmers faced with unstable crop prices and costly trade wars; there are many these days who understandably feel threatened and at risk.

Interestingly, this circumstance arises at a time when the economic gap between the few who have much and the many who have relatively little has seldom been wider. Recent studies indicate the richest 26 people in the world now control more wealth than the poorest 3.7 billion combined. The figures for the U.S. are not much better.

Amazingly, despite this already great gap between the very wealthy and everyone else, tax cuts passed over the last couple of years at both federal and state level in Iowa have simply made this gap worse by giving the largest tax breaks to the wealthiest individuals.

This suggests an obvious place for those feeling economically threatened to come together will be to challenge an unfair tax system and the unsustainable social imbalance it fuels. A more just tax system could provide a source of funding for the safeguards society needs – for farmers, laid off factory workers, and young people or elderly at risk.

It can also begin reducing the soaring national debt we’re accumulating due to reckless tax policies.

But beyond this, what is truly needed from ALL of us is a return to the spirit John F. Kennedy invoked when he challenged us many years ago to “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Too often in recent years this has been reversed, to people instead asking “What’s my country done for me lately?”

Kennedy’s challenge prompted a great flowering of American enterprise and civic mindedness in the 1960s. From establishment of Vista and the Peace Corps aimed at helping the less fortunate at home and abroad; to putting a man on the moon within 10 years of setting that ambitious goal, we showed our country’s greatness - both of spirit and achievement.

JFK was himself echoing an earlier call by Franklin Roosevelt to remember that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. This challenge steeled our nation’s collective will - first in overcoming the Great Depression and then in vanquishing the twin evils of Nazi Germany and fascist Japan.

That same “Can-Do” spirit of sacrifice and working together for our common good still endures in Americans of all ages, colors, and genders.

To bring it forth anew, the responsibility rests with each of us - first to choose political leaders who summon aspirations for our common good and reject appeals to fear and prejudice.

Then we need to answer their summons by our own individual willingness to serve - as nature and Providence give us the ability - to make our lives better by building stronger, more sustainable communities for us all.

Working together and focusing on what unites rather than divides us, always has and always will provide the true core of American greatness.

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Mark Schwiebert, a lawyer, is a former mayor of Rock Island.