Michael Steele said that Founding Father Thomas Jefferson may have had 2012 in mind when he wrote, “When people fear the government, there’s tyranny. When government fears the people, there’s liberty.”
“There is a sense of fear in this country, from both the right and the left,” the former Republican National Committee chairman said Wednesday at Benedictine University. “Americans are concerned about the direction of the country, our ability to care for ourselves and our future, our children and their children.
“Where does this fear come from?” he asked. “It comes from love of country. It comes from their sense that they want to see America do right, they want to see America do well. People love the principles of liberty and opportunity. They love the American dream. They want it for themselves and their children.”
Steele spoke to several hundred people in the Krasa Student Center as part of the “Presidential Election Series 2012” sponsored by the Center for Civic Leadership (CCL). His appearance followed last April’s presentation featuring Democratic strategist and political adviser David Axelrod.
Steele, who was invited to speak at Benedictine by Jim Ryan, a University alumnus and former Illinois Attorney General who serves as director of CCL, touched on a number of subjects during his 40-minute address and a nearly 50-minute question-and-answer session, including the perception that success in America is an evil to be feared and mistrusted.
“In America, success is not our enemy,” he said. “Success is something we aspire to. How many people woke up this morning, looked in the mirror, and the first thing you said to yourself is, ‘All I want to be today is poor?’ That’s not in us, that’s not what we’re about.
“That’s not liberal,” Steele said. “That’s not conservative. That’s not Democrat. That’s not Republican, that’s not red, blue. That’s exactly who we are as people who believe in the founding principles of this country. But the American dream is becoming a distant memory for far too many of us.”
Adopted at birth and educated at Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown University School of Law, Steele has worked in both the public and private sectors. He was an associate at a Washington, D.C. law firm and later served as lieutenant governor in Maryland before an unsuccessful run for the U.S. senate in 2006.
Steele said that few politicians are ready to accept responsibility for their actions or lack of action. Instead, they are quick to hurl blame at each other.
“There are many questions that are not being discussed,” he said. “The right, the left, the red, the blue, the liberal, the conservative, they point their fingers to blame Bush, to blame Romney, to blame Obama, to blame (House Republican leader Eric) Cantor, to blame, to blame, to blame.
“Would somebody please accept responsibility?” Steele said. “Would somebody just say, ‘This happened on my watch and I am prepared to do what is necessary to move us forward?’”
However, Steele suggested that the American voter must take responsibility as well. He decried efforts to disenfranchise voters and said that the government should make it possible for everyone – young, old, poor, disabled – to vote by providing the means and the voter ID cards that would eliminate questions about eligibility.
“Don’t we as a country want to make sure that every voter has access to the ballot box?” he asked. “We could provide voter ID cards to the poor and the elderly for less than 70 cents per card. If they take the vote away from us, we’re not American. If they take that away from us, we’re not free.”
Steele served in various capacities in state and national party politics before he was elected RNC chairman in 2009. Since his exit from the chairmanship, Steele consults and writes on law, business and politics. His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, Politico.com, Townhall.com and The Journal of International Security Affairs. He also appears frequently on MSNBC.
Steele fielded several questions following his address – questions about term limits, education, and who his favorite MSNBC commentator is – but his overriding message was clear; to change the stalemate in Washington, D.C. and to send a message to prompt action, people must vote.
“There is much to do and we may not get it all done, but we must at least start,” he said. “And the people we elected, they owe us that. We’re all invested in this.”