“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
— C.S. Lewis
Merriam-Webster defines virtue as “conformity to a standard of right: morality.” If, as Lewis’ quote proposes, virtue depends upon courage, then a failure to exercise courage will erode all morality. And ultimately collective cowardice must wear away any societal foundation of shared values. If ever times cried out for people to act courageously, now is one of those times.
Our national politics are so polluted by partisan cowardice that it’s hard to imagine the overwhelming stench of fear being abated short of some catastrophe that no friend would wish upon us. The impeachment proceedings and the Iowa caucus debacle that presently dominate our country’s news cycles dramatically illustrate how the merits of issues no longer matter. Members of Congress, senators and campaigners just unquestioningly cower behind political party designation lest someone direct a nasty tweet their way or threaten some perk of office seniority or (gasp) consider voting for someone else. In Washington, the suggestion that decision-making or policy choices be based upon a thoughtful, sincere analysis of the right thing to do is as quaint as a horse-drawn carriage ride. The dominant and perhaps exclusive factor in these politicians’ choices is the prediction of how their election prospects will be impacted — and that means blindly following the party line. The State of the Union address’s nauseating display of fawning fealty or righteous contempt, depending on whether one is a Republican or Democrat, was a fitting cherry on top of recent days’ exhibitions of political timidity.
Our state’s politics are sliding into a sewer of cowardice that will soon be indistinguishable from the goings-on in D.C. George Norris’ vision of a one-house legislature that could focus on pragmatic problem solving and to some extent be shielded from partisan politics is more and more a naive belief in a fairy tale than what actually occurs in Lincoln. On many issues of substance, many state senators simply genuflect to Gov. Pete Ricketts’ personal political ambitions rather than putting their shoulders to the hard and often politically unpopular work of implementing sound public policy. For evidence, one need look no further than the Legislature’s annual abandonment of property tax relief through the only rational, realistic means available: dramatically shifting more of the burden of K-12 public education funding to state revenue sources. Ricketts says that is a tax increase, which he will not allow, and the Unicameral bows its deference. Those senators not prostrating themselves to the governor’s as yet unannounced but inevitable campaign for higher office are instead advocating their own irrational fantasyland, promising to cut taxes without impacting government services. When did having a state legislative seat become so alluring that the courage to honestly address issues became unfathomable?
The absence of courage at the national and state level increasingly seeps its way into local politics. Many of those holding and seeking elective office want our community to be better yet seemingly recoil from suggestions for change, knowing that doing things differently will be opposed. How do Iron Eagle and the Rec Center fit into the future of North Platte’s recreation and wellness offerings? What alterations are necessary to take our economic viability into a future with fewer Union Pacific jobs? How do we enforce housing standards to protect our most vulnerable fellow citizens from the few who are willing to take advantage of them? These and other issues present difficult and unpopular decisions requiring courage to address.
As with most important things, it falls to us individually, each of us, to exercise personal courage to move needles in positive directions. Will we elect and then support public officials who honestly and thoughtfully take on problems rather than those who most uniformly fall in partisan line and — through ignorance or deception — simply repeat political party talking points, ideological happy talk and unachievable campaign slogans? Do we have the courage to make decisions based on genuine facts instead of fearmongering, finger-pointing and alternate realities that fit our comfort zones at the expense of the truth? Can we put aside our phones and social media, look one another in the eye, and honestly and respectfully discuss how we can make things better? Do we have the kind of courage that Lewis recognizes to be virtue’s foundation?