I’ve been reminded recently of the old cowboy song, Home on the Range. You know the line, “Where never is heard a discouraging word”? That is not the United States right now. It feels like pretty much everywhere I turn, all I hear is discouragement.

But the question we have to confront is not, "What’s going wrong?" It’s, "How do we respond?"

As always, the answer to our problems does not lie in efforts to tinker with the structures we’ve erected or the systems we’ve created. It lies in us — in the American people. Whatever our political beliefs, we share some characteristics that I think give us cause for hope.

I’ve always thought that Carl Schurz, a German-born U.S. senator from Missouri, summed up something basic about the American character when he said, on the floor of the Senate in 1872, “My country right or wrong; when right, to keep her right; when wrong, to put her right.”

Americans respect the ideals of this country. They’re devoted to those ideals — freedom, liberty, justice for all — and they want the nation to live up to them. Even when we believe the nation is falling short of its ideals, we’re moved not by malice or hatred, but because we want to make the United States stronger and fairer.

Americans in overwhelming numbers believe in and respect what this country stands for. All of us also recognize that this nation has its faults — some of them deep-seated and stubborn. We believe that America can do better. But there is a broad streak of pragmatism in this country. Again and again in times of adversity, we see Americans of all backgrounds and political perspectives pitching in to help out. Americans believe in the values of hard work, the importance of family, self-sufficiency, community engagement and involvement.

This is why, however dire things appear in Washington, I continue to believe that we have it within us to set the country back on a productive track. We know that in order for us to progress we all have to give something back — that with freedom and liberty comes responsibility.

And when we see others stand up for the nation’s ideals and act to broaden opportunity for others, it sends, as Robert Kennedy said, “a ripple of hope” through the community that, in time, becomes an unstoppable current of change.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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