As we head into the final months of the presidential campaign that launched a thousand columns, it is worth asking whether there is anything left to say about where America finds itself at this stage in its history. The articles and posts lamenting our current state of political affairs have reached a fever pitch. An exhausting thought made even more tiring when one considers that the November 8 election will spark even more chatter about what is likely to happen next. Among these missives are discourses on why frustrated voters are challenging the establishment’s stronghold on the direction of both political parties, concerns about how deepening economic inequities are further dividing haves from have-nots, realizations that long-predicted demographic shifts are now having a considerable impact, and near-grief about how personal qualities once considered prerequisite for elected office no longer seem to apply.
These are important issues that deserve serious reflection, and yet the conversation continues to be dominated by the pronouncements of the candidates and their one-note surrogates that are amplified (but not sufficiently analyzed) by a news media struggling for relevance in a sea of social noise expressed in 140 characters or less. Given all of the invective flying back and forth, the need today for nonpartisan, policy-focused organizations such as the Aspen Institute is greater than ever. So as this hyperbolic—and often uncivil—debate escalates, we find ourselves asking, what could we do that would improve the tenor of this debate?
Recently, a number of us at the Aspen Institute focused on this very challenge. Sure, we don’t take sides. We don’t pick favorites. We don’t lobby and we don’t advocate for political outcomes. Instead, we bring people together and we advocate for effective leadership. We host conversations where differing points of view are not just tolerated, they are encouraged. We share ideas and solutions that we hope will make the world a better place. It then dawned on us that our core mission—as a nonpartisan forum for values-based leadership and the open exchange of ideas—creates both the opportunity and the obligation to say something and to say it now. To offer not just a hasty reaction to the debates currently underway, but to propose a prescription for how to convert these public lessons learned in real-time into new ideas and solutions that could lead to a hopeful future, for all.
Since its founding, the Aspen Institute has convened the brightest leaders from all sectors and perspectives, challenging them to reflect on their core values to find common ground on issues that matter. In sum, bringing together the people who should be talking but aren’t. What better time for us to reaffirm our commitment to this important mission than the here and now.
Over the next few months, you will hear from my colleagues who have been deeply engaged in issues as far-ranging as economic opportunity, education reform, culture and identity, justice, democracy, community, and America’s vital role in the world. These are people who listen to an array of voices from both parties, from public offices at all levels, from leaders of big cities and small towns, and from all races, genders and economic backgrounds. People who have heard the experiences and ideas that could actually point to a way forward where the future—whatever the outcome of this election—may actually fulfill the promise of a new prosperity and understanding, and the chance to face tough challenges with a renewed vigor to overcome them. We are calling this series of essays “Election 2016: America Faces the Issues.” As in everything the Aspen Institute does, we hope this series will spark conversations that include as much listening as talking, and ideas that spark actions on which we can all agree.
Walter Isaacson is President and CEO of the Aspen Institute. Essays from “Election 2016: America Faces the Issues” will be published on aspeninstitute.org beginning July 14.