When a nation transitions to new leadership, it is time to lay out priorities for the future.
This week, the eyes of the world are on the United States. In the aftermath of the extraordinary events that have dominated the nation’s politics in recent months – the Presidential Election, the refusal of many to acknowledge the results of that election, the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol Building, and tomorrow’s inauguration of President Biden – a deeply thought out path forward is needed more than ever.
Like people around the world, I’ve been shocked, heart-broken, angry and determined over the past few months. I’ve experienced many of these emotions at the same time. I’ve wondered how American society could have fallen so far and created the conditions for people to act in such damaging and dangerous ways to each other, our wider society, and the nation’s global standing.
As the President and CEO of United Way Worldwide, I’ve called for people to work together more times than I can count. It’s worked for our global network and for addressing social and economic problems for 130 years. I’m not about to give it up. But in order to achieve unity right now, we need to first undertake some serious repair work. People need to be held accountable for their actions. We need to settle on a common set of facts and values. Only then will we truly be able to unify and move forward together.
The United States is not alone in seeing extremists bring forth a dangerous stew of violence, racism, anti-intellectualism and radical populism. Since January 6th, I’ve heard the United States compared to a “banana republic.” But we retain institutions that, however much they struggle, remain viable and independent. One only has to look at the judges who carefully examined each election challenge, voting supervisors who resisted pressure to cast doubt on the counting process, and lawmakers who stood up against colleagues who wanted to tear us further apart.
It’s easier to draw comparisons between what is happening right now in the U.S. to countries like Hungary and Turkey, where populists warp democratic values through intimidation of the opposition and independent media in order to advance narrow-minded, nationalist causes. We need to fight back against this and all kinds of extremism everywhere, as they undermine the core principles of a free and fair society.
Repairing American democracy and once again becoming a model for the rule of law, human rights and opportunity for all will take a long time. There is no switch to flip. While the outgoing administration leadership intensified our divisions, one administration did not cause all of these challenges, nor can a new one fix them all. It will take a long-term commitment.
Right now, we need swift accountability and justice to be handed down upon those who attacked the Capitol Building and the public officials inside. People died, lives were placed in danger, and symbols of our government were left broken in the name of intolerance and outlandish conspiracy. The justice system must prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.
Next must come a deep examination of how we can establish a fact-based, informed citizenry. Individuals and institutions, including United Way, called on Americans to vote in November’s election, and exercising that right is vitally important. But an informed electorate, one able to understand the basics of the issues and debate them openly, respectfully and honestly is even more critical to the health of representative democracy. We don’t have that right now. In its place, we have an information ecosystem that elevates sensational mistruths over facts, the tribal fringe over the mainstream, and the few over the many.
The way forward includes any number of actions: better civic education, greater cross-cultural connections and the establishment of a public spirit of volunteerism. We will need formal community conversations that bring together liberals and conservatives outside of the election process to discuss community issues and solutions based on a shared set of facts and values.
We need to patch our boat before deciding which way to row. But as we begin this work, there is one critical question to ask ourselves: what sort of society do we want to row towards?
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the inequities in our health, education and economic systems. Minorities are more likely to contract the virus and suffer seriously from it. The digital divide is preventing poorer children from keeping up with their educations. The fact is, we haven’t truly been in this together. Is that the normal we want to return to? I say no. We must aim for a society that creates greater security and opportunity for all, letting more people achieve the success they desire.
Historians and political scientists for generations have pointed out that the United States’ success depends upon the quality of its leaders, but also the quality of its public – their collective spirit, morality and commitment to the common good.
The nation faces one of its most difficult moments right now. The choices we make will determine which way we sail and the welfare and fate of a people.