“… We as a people have to work together as a team because we are in hard times. I know if we do… we’ll continue to be the best nation in the world and accomplish goals none of us thought we could set.”
That was Major Scotty Smiley’s message to the House and Senate Republicans in Philadelphia last week. As we gathered in America’s birthplace for our annual retreat, keynotes by the President, Vice President and British Prime Minister dominated headlines around the globe. But it was the story of this hometown hero, a soldier living in Spokane who lost his eyesight to a suicide bomber in Iraq, that renewed our commitment as Republicans — on behalf of the nation we’ve been elected to lead — to teamwork and values.
Major Smiley’s inspiring message of service before self, teamwork and coming together touched me deeply, especially at this moment in our nation’s history.
Ever since, I’ve been thinking a lot about everything going on in our country, and the word I keep coming back to is civility. After such a tense election cycle, we can’t ignore how divided we’ve become and how, as a nation, we can and must heal.
While Republicans are energized and excited to work with the administration to tackle the biggest challenges of our time, there’s no denying the divisiveness that’s taken hold of modern politics. “Comment sections” on social media, grocery store checkouts, family dinners – everything has become a breeding ground for disagreement and negativity. I think back to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when I spoke at an NAACP rally in Spokane about unity. During the event, protesters interrupted, waving signs and yelling.
As I stood there listening to their chants and shouts, I was heartbroken. Not out of pride for my own speech, but out of sadness for our country. We’ve forgotten how to listen to each other, and how to come together for productive conversations. Everything is viewed through an “us versus them” lens. It shouldn’t be “us versus them.” It should just be us – all of us.
This isn’t an issue exclusive to politics. There’s a sense of brokenness and hopelessness splitting communities apart. A Gallup poll taken after the election found that 77% of adults views America as divided when it comes to the most important values. But we don’t have to take our frustrations out on each other.
Division stifles progress and prevents good ideas – no matter their source – from being heard and considered. Reveling in our opponents’ missteps and losses drags us down as a country and diminishes our potential as people.
We must remember that although we come from different backgrounds and ideologies, we’re all part of this great experiment in self-governance. We’re all united by common values of liberty, justice and equality of opportunity, even if we don’t always agree on how to achieve them. As Major Smiley reminds us, ultimately, we’re all on the same team.
It’s going to take every American playing on the same team — and everyone trying to be the best version of themselves — to make America great. That’s why I’ve challenged my own team to live by example and help change the culture on “the Hill.”
In our office on Capitol Hill, the epicenter of partisanship and egos, my team and I established a system of values, a motto called, “Have Fun While We SERVE” — Seek Excellence, Everybody Matters, Responsibly Own It, Vigilant Integrity, and Embrace Change — and at staff meetings we talk about how we are living these values, and where we fall short.
Through this exercise we are consciously reflecting on how our actions impact those around us, and how we can strive to be better public servants, teammates and citizens. When it comes to changing culture and bridging the divide, it starts with us — one person, one team, one meeting at a time. It’s up to every office, neighborhood, block and community to embrace the values that tie us together as Americans.
Our country faces a number of unknowns, and sometimes fear of the unknown can be more difficult than moving ahead. It isn’t always easy to work together, especially when every issue threatens to tear us apart.
But courage is moving ahead in spite of fear, and that’s where trust comes in – trusting that, as elected representatives, we are all here because we want what’s best for people; trusting that we’re all doing the best we can; and trusting that together we can be a team that finds solutions for health care, taxes, and any problem facing our country.
America is strongest when we work together — despite our differences. Our shared values of liberty, justice, and equality of opportunity are stronger than any campaign or controversy. We can’t – and shouldn’t – go at it alone.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is a U.S. Representative for Washington’s 5th District and Chair of the House Republican Conference.