A long influential voice in the Kansas Leadership Center’s development outlines a road map to working through the bitter political polarization wedging Kansans and Americans apart. But the journey won’t be easy or comfortable.
In September 1787, after the tortuous process of drafting the U.S. Constitution had been completed but not yet made public, Elizabeth Willing Powel, a prominent society figure and the wife of Philadelphia’s mayor, asked Benjamin Franklin: “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
“A republic” replied Franklin, “If you can keep it.”
As you read these words, we, the American people, have endured a year more tumultuous and traumatic than any in our collective lifetimes. We have reason to celebrate that we, our communities, and our governmental and political systems have been stress tested to the max. We have withstood the pressures and can begin to look ahead.
Goodbye 2020 and good riddance.
None of us will ever forget it. We have made it through a pandemic with millions of our fellow citizens suffering enormous economic and health consequences; a resurgent clamoring for racial justice following a series of tragic deaths of Black citizens at the hands of the police; the increasingly obvious impacts of changing climate patterns and, of course, a bitterly fought intense election, the results of which were still being challenged by the incumbent president weeks after the votes had been cast, which culminated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6.
Unsurprisingly, personal angst and political disappointment have generated in some people a concern that the nation’s grand experiment of self-governance is irretrievably broken and needs fundamental repair. For others, the worry is more about bridging the great divides around race, geography, demography, generations and, yes, ideology that have fractured communities, relationships and even families.
Is our republic broken? Depends on whom you talk to.
What makes the 2020 election unique is that neither side is completely satisfied with the outcome. This election was a rebuke for Trump, making Democrats happy, and a triumph for Trump-led conservatism, making Republicans happy. Millions of people voted for Biden and then for Republicans down the rest of the ballot. Conservative positions prevailed on nearly all of the statewide referenda.
Activists and ideologues on both sides are advocating for fundamental change, albeit very different versions of what a better future would be. Many Republicans are convinced that Trump was unfairly denied a second term by the unceasing hostility of the media, undermining of his policies by the bureaucrats in the deep state and then by the prevalence of easy voter registration, mail and early voting (a perception that’s paved the way for unproven claims of voter fraud). There are lots of Democrats who are just as certain that gerrymandering, voter suppression and the Electoral College gave unfair advantage to voters in rural areas and in less populous states, which cost their party several Senate seats and a reduced majority in the House. Some Democrats are apoplectic at what they see as the rise of authoritarianism on the right and its grip on the Republican base. Some Republicans have been equally agonized about what they see as the rise of socialism on the left and its leverage with the Democrats and the Biden administration.
Most of us (fortunately for us and for the republic) do not think about politics 24/7, 365 days a year. We have lives to lead, families to care for, a pandemic to get beyond and daily challenges involving work, home and community. With the election and the inauguration in the rearview mirror, it is time to get back to our daily lives.
Progressive and conservative partisans both say they’re concerned about the dangers of polarization. Despite that, the deep divisions in our country keep growing. What can be done? It’s obvious we have challenges to attend to. We need to find a way to bridge those chasms and heal the damage.
That’s our work, and it starts right here.
Let’s begin with a celebration. Americans of all ideologies and political preferences have a lot to celebrate about our republic. This was an extraordinary election, democratically speaking. Nearly 160 million of us voted, about two-thirds of those eligible, a percentage not achieved since 1908. We gave the immediate post election period a stress test, and it survived with the help of many public servants and dedicated volunteers, Republicans and Democrats, just doing their jobs. They allowed power to transfer peacefully yet again, despite hurdles along the way.
Not only did we survive the election, we may be on the verge of getting on the other side of COVID-19 as a result of a unique government- private sector collaboration, which incentivized and reduced the risk for pharmaceutical companies to develop and produce vaccines at an unheard of speed, bringing us closer to the economic recovery, in-school learning, travel options, and restaurant and entertainment openings that we all are yearning for.
So what part of the problem do we want to address?
Let the activists and polemicists argue about whether the republic is at risk and, if so, whether the threat comes from the left or the right. Let the politicians debate big national reforms.
For most of us, the election and pandemic have created smaller rifts, in our families and our communities, which we would like to begin to heal. For us, that is our version of “Keeping the Republic.” The process of healing is difficult because it will require each of us to experience loss. We need to lose the comfort of being able to blame others, the self-righteous belief that we have the moral high ground and even some dearly held beliefs.
How do we go about doing that?
Your opponent is not your enemy – empathy for the “other”
It’s important to recognize that in a self-governing community, it’s essential that those who are on the losing side of an election or a policy fight can see themselves in the future. If they cannot, then the loss becomes an existential threat. Do the more than 770,000 Kansans who voted for Trump see themselves respected and heard in a Biden administration? Do the more than 570,000 Kansans who voted for Barbara Bollier see themselves represented in the U.S. Senate?
Here are two illustrations of what it looks like to help defeated opponents see a place for themselves going forward.
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela defied the wishes of most of his core constituents by bringing his most formidable opponent, F.W. de Klerk into the first post-apartheid government. His doing so was a critical element of ensuring a peaceful transition because so many of de Klerk’s colleagues feared that they would have no place in the future of their country.
Similarly, in Northern Ireland, the big breakthrough leading to the Good Friday Agreement came when the mostly Catholic political parties, particularly Sinn Fenn, began to describe a future Northern Ireland in which there was a respectful role for the Unionists, mostly Protestants, who had lived in fear of a self governing Northern Ireland in which they had no role, no voice.
For Kansans, that means imagining a future in which you treat those who backed losing candidates or who differ from you politically with the respect and understanding that every human being is entitled to. This requires empathy, understanding how the world looks to them, without judgment, just from their perspective. And it requires compromise, a complicated process when you believe deeply in what you care most about and feel entitled to enjoy the fruits of your victory.
Radical empathy asks you to try your best to see how the world looks to people who see the world very differently from how you do, no matter how misguided it appears. It requires curiosity. How do they make sense of things? It requires a realization that we cannot fully appreciate the lived experience of someone whose journey is very different from ours, but we can aspire to that. It requires close listening to other people’s stories, even if they make no sense to you because they do make sense to them.
How do you know you are there? One indicator is that you can tell their story as they would tell it, no matter how you feel about it.
Compromising, prioritizing, honoring the noble values of the other
What makes compromise so difficult?
I learned about the art of compromise very early in my professional life. I was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1967 as an overeducated, under-experienced 27-year old. I was a Republican, the only Republican in the three-member delegation from my hometown of Brookline, a town of just over 50,000 people bordered on three sides by the city of Boston.
As I looked around the House chamber after I was sworn in, it did not take me long to realize that in order to make any progress for my constituents, I had to get the support of many of those colleagues who my constituents had sent me up to the State House to squash, or at least ensure that they were not able to enact legislation my folks did not like.
How do you gain the support of people with whom you have fundamental disagreements?
Here is a possible process: three personal, internal steps and then translating that work into outward-facing initiatives.
First, accept that almost none of the Kansans who voted for Biden are socialists or members of antifa, and almost none of the Kansans who voted for Trump are conspiracy-loving fascists or Proud Boys. Demonizing the other justifies avoiding the hard, uncomfortable process of engaging with them. They are our neighbors. We shop at their stores. They provide services to us. Their kids go to school with ours. Be generous to them and to yourselves for what might have been said and done in 2020 under the stresses we all endured.
Second, do the painful work of ordering your priorities and focusing only on what is at or near the top of your list. Of all the things you care about, what do you care about the most? What are your top three? Those are the non-negotiables. This is painful work because it requires you to let go or use as a vehicle for compromise everything else on your list that you had been telling yourself and others you believed in. If something is 47th on your list, it might as well not be there at all.
Third, you need to reclaim your place on the moral high ground that has been ceded to the other side. Our political process has allowed each side to own values which we all share.
Here are some examples.
On the left it might mean honoring patriotism and religiosity, affirming the primacy of law and order, and acknowledging the working class cultural/social disruptions from both rapidly changing mores and their economic grievances from free trade and technological transformation.
On the right, it could mean embracing compassion for the poor, supporting racial justice for minorities who have historically been treated badly, endorsing workers’ rights to counterbalance corporate power, and supporting the entitlement of every American to adequate health care and a good public education.
Fourth, and this is the hard part, develop and get behind policy packages in which both sides win and both sides give up something important to them. At a high level of abstraction, it’s not so hard to endorse others’ most noble values. It begins to bite as we translate those values into concrete policy.
For example, for those on the left, respecting religiosity might mean: allowing people to live their religious practices in their professional lives as doctors or even bakers; demonstrating patriotism by applauding the great qualities and significant progress of the American experiment while never ceasing to try to fix where the country falls short of its ideals; recognizing and attending to the emotional and economic dislocations that are caused by social progress and international collaboration; and acknowledging that believing in the rule of law and the need for order means holding accountable bad cops and people sneaking across the border.
For those on the right, it might mean that being compassionate toward less fortunate people is not being soft; accepting the reality that while you may not have ever discriminated in your life, the history of how this country has treated some minorities, particularly Black people and Native Americans, deserves special attention and redress; acknowledging that for some religious and God-fearing people, aborting a fetus is not murder, especially when it occurs early in a pregnancy or is done to reduce or eliminate serious health risks to the woman; and that the right to bear arms does not need to include weapons that are not crucial for either self-defense or hunting.
Most of us have a desire to live in communities that are stable, that address pressing challenges and that make change incrementally.
We have a real-life current illustration of that desire right here in Kansas. With funding from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and the bipartisan sponsorship of the Democratic governor and the Republican speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, our own Kansas Leadership Center, the publisher of The Journal, has led a statewide grassroots initiative called Kansas Beats the Virus. Hundreds of small local meetings have been convened across the state with participants from many walks of life and points on the political spectrum. They’ve come up with concrete action steps geared to their own community. While very different in size and scope, they all point to shared value of getting on the other side of the pandemic. The long-term effects of such efforts will need to be studied closely, but initial indications are that differences can be bridged.
What makes for a stable community? Some thoughts: offering high quality educational opportunities for every child in Kansas; securing access to health care for every Kansan; supporting the role of law enforcement, while holding accountable those who abuse it; encouraging civic engagement through high voter turnout and smart registration and vote-counting security measures; and promoting individual initiative to volunteer and contribute to charity.
By honoring others’ values and beginning to translate them into policy, being willing to take some losses in the interests of national healing and, yes, saving the republic, potential public policies packages begin to emerge.
Again, as examples, here are some unrefined ideas. What would happen, for instance, if we:
- Acknowledged that abortion is complicated? Could we ensure that if you believe that life starts at conception, you would not be forced to violate that belief in your job, while also allowing abortions to be available to women who choose that path?
- Finished building the wall and cracked down on illegal border crossings while providing a steep but realizable pathway to citizenship and an end to family separation?
- Raised the minimum wage but supported subsidies to keep it from killing off small businesses?
- Regulated the gap between what senior executives and workers earn in public companies?
- Paid bars and restaurants to stay closed in areas where the pandemic is raging, like we subsidize farmers to protect against the risks from growing commodity crops?
- Nurtured patriotism by requiring every young American to perform public service, maybe even in the military? That way, the risks of our foreign adventures do not fall disproportionately on people at the bottom of the economic ladder.
- Denounced violence when it comes from the left and the right, and distanced ourselves from those who do not do so with the same fervor?
- Backed away from affirmative action while embracing a commitment to some kind of restorative justice for Black and Native Americans?
- Endorsed the rights of all citizens, whatever their sexual identities or religious practices, to be their authentic selves as law-abiding, freedom-loving Americans as long as they do not interfere with the freedom of their fellow citizens to do the same?
The underlying approach to each issue is the same. Everyone gives up something dearly held in service of making progress on a difficult and divisive value-laden challenge, and more important, prioritizing healing our communities and, yes, showing Ben Franklin we have heard him.
Let the work begin.
Marty Linsky, an influential voice in the Kansas Leadership Center’s development since it was founded nearly 15 years ago, recently retired after over 40 years of teaching about leadership, politics and the media at the Harvard Kennedy School. A graduate of Williams College and Harvard Law, he has served as assistant minority leader in the Massachusetts House of Representatives; worked as an editorial writer/reporter at The Boston Globe; edited an alternative weekly called The Real Paper; served as chief secretary to Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld; and co-founded a global consulting firm which he sold to the employees in 2013. He has authored or co-authored over a dozen books and chapters including, with Ron Heifetz, the bestselling “Leadership on the Line Line.”
Now that you’ve read Marty Linsky’s essay, we’d like for readers to weigh in with their own prescriptions for keeping the republic. What do you think must be done to deal with political polarization? What compromises do you think you and your allies should be willing (and unwilling) to make in hopes of bridging divides? Enter The Journal’s Keep the Republic essay contest by submitting your entry at klcjr.nl/republicessaycontest. The winner of first prize will receive $500. Second- and third-place winners will receive $250 and $150, respectively.
Your essay should:
Be no more than 500 words in length.
Address the following questions: “What do you think will be necessary to keep the republic? What specifically would you be willing to do or not do to make that possible?”
Cite specific ways in which you or the factions you are most loyal to could adapt their behavior to strengthen democracy.
Be submitted by no later than 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 21, 2021.
If you have questions, please contact Chris Green, managing editor of The Journal, at 316-712-4945 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
Sign up for email updates about The Journal’s content.