In times of crisis, we depend on our leaders for decisive action, guidance and to navigate complex and interrelated challenges. Leaders then depend on us to work together once difficult and costly decisions are made.
To contain the spread of COVID-19, recent polls encouragingly show public health messages are being heard and heeded. People also report high levels of trust in public hospitals, state health agencies and governments. Unfortunately, the polarization we’ve come to expect in our politics seems unaffected.
It is no secret that our politics were in a bad place before the coronavirus arrived. Studies consistently show that Americans feel divided and see incivility as a real problem in our country. Large majorities of Americans (93%) also report they are tired of how divided the country has become, want compromise and are not motivated by partisan loyalty.
But the heated tone of our politics is alarming and can lead us to think it is best to not get involved. I feel the same way at times but also believe the civility, integrity and leaders we need are possible. So, I must make my voice heard — and not just my voice but many.
Together, we can see our country aspire to the heights of political debate and innovation we really want. People from all walks of life have the ability to engage leaders and break down cycles of incivility when they know where to start.
• First, restoring a basic sense of respect and decency begins by remembering that leaders are people just like you and me. That’s easier said than done, especially when we don’t agree with our leaders or didn’t vote for them. But the person is not the same as their position, and we should avoid the tendency to reduce elected officials to little more than caricatures of their position or political party.
• Next, resist looking at culture in terms of us and them. Thinking this way breaks society into factions where we become increasingly stratified, bitterly disdainful and fearful of one another. One way to tear down the barriers that divide us is to start closer to home. Focusing on our more immediate community helps us to see each other as neighbors with whom we can find common ground and creative solutions to shared problems. We are in this together.
• Finally, realize there will always be times when you disagree with elected leaders. Whether or not you agree, disagreement can be held in peace and navigated with respect. There will be particular policy stances or actions you would like a leader to take, and it is appropriate to have those conversations. However, the most important thing we need of our leaders is for them to be people of integrity. Never underestimate the power of your words to inspire someone to maintain integrity as they lead.
Now is the time for leaders who work together to frustrate tired partisan narratives by bringing diverse people to the table to find solutions. Those are the leaders and the conversations that will move us forward.
Just as we can work together to get through the current health crisis, we can also work together to restore civility in our politics and promote the integrity we need in our leaders.
Joel Harder is the author of “When Leaders Matter: How Civility, Integrity, and the Leaders We Need Are Possible” and chaplain of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.