Nearly a year ago, in the wake of the Jan. 6 events at the U.S. Capitol, The Journal published an essay by leadership expert and longtime friend of the Kansas Leadership Center, Marty Linsky. In this provocative piece, Linsky outlined a challenging road map to working through the bitter polarization wedging Kansans and Americans apart into what seemed like increasingly mutually exclusive interpretations of reality.
In contrast to other commentators on the topic, Linsky urged readers not to get bogged down in debates over whether the republic is truly at risk and, if so, whether the threat is coming mostly from the left or right. Instead, he asked would-be repairers of the republic to focus on what they could do to heal rifts in their families and communities and not on national debates. Developing empathy for the “other,” learning how to prioritize one’s own values for the sake of compromise and honor the noble values of others represented key interventions that might actually make progress possible.
In hopes of continuing the conversation about Keeping the Republic, The Journal invited readers to weigh in with their own prescriptions. Several dozen responded by entering the magazine’s first-ever essay contest. The entries were reviewed and rated by members of the KLC’s civic engagement advisory committee. Today, with the anniversary of Jan. 6 now upon us, we’re recognizing seven winners. Two writers, Tyler Curtis of Emporia and Lindsay Wilke of Winfield, tied for first place and each received a $500 prize. We are also recognizing five third-place winners whose entries were also highly regarded by judges.
The winners hail from locations across the state and from the left, right and center of the political spectrum. But they all share a desire to see Kansans and Americans embrace curiosity, thoughtful and civil dialogue, and a willingness to keep trying to work across factions despite the challenges it presents.
Although most of these essays were written and submitted in January and February 2021, their themes remain just as relevant, if not more so, on the one-year anniversary of Jan. 6 as they did in the days immediately following the storming of the Capitol building. In fact, each winner was given the opportunity to review his or her essay in case they wanted to make updates based on what has happened in the months since they were initially submitted. None of them made more than small edits.
The winners also joined a small-group conversation over Zoom in December where they had the chance to discuss their essays with each other and reflect on what kind of leadership might be needed going forward to keep the republic.
You can read all seven essays in full below.
First Place (tie)
Third Place (tie)
“The Missing Voice of the Moderates” by Scott Morgan
“America is Living Paycheck to Paycheck” by Janet Federico
“How I Will Keep the Republic” by Damon Young
“Lowering the Heat Enough to Talk” by Hayden Maples
“Keeping the Republic” by Ian Cizerle-Brown
First place (tie)
“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
Overcoming weakness. Finding ways to succeed despite our shortcomings. This is the key ingredient for America’s past and future greatness.
Today, America’s ability to repair its faults is being challenged. Tribal, partisan, zero-sum politics have hindered our country’s ability to come together as a people to solve problems. Compromise fails, gridlock reigns, and partisanship trumps partnership. Is America no longer able to “repair her faults”?
I have not given up on America. I continue to believe in America’s ability to recognize and repair its flaws. But doing so requires us to overcome today’s divisive culture. Repairing America requires us to embrace civility, find common ground, and cultivate partnerships.
Embracing civility means humanizing humanity. Rather than seeing fellow Americans as enemies, we should recognize them as fellow humans. To do this, we have to learn to listen versus label. It’s too common to pigeonhole and label people: conservative, liberal, socialist, libertarian. And the more we label, the less we listen.
Second, we have to find ways to seek common ground. We should start with this assumption: we are far more alike than different. We all want to flourish. Engaging with people on the “other side of the aisle” and finding common interests will lead to mutually beneficial action and shared progress.
Lastly, we must cultivate partnerships. These partnerships will look more like what Frederick Douglass had in mind when he said, “I would unite with anybody to do right; and with nobody to do wrong.”
In his most recent book, Charles Koch reflects on where his attempts to create change have failed. He laments his investments in partisan politics and is now refocused on cultivating partnerships. In his words, “The lie of tribalism is that your gain must come at my political expense. It is inherently exclusionary, a project of division.” (223)
Some may be surprised by Mr. Koch’s words. I was. But that does not make his observations any less true. If Charles Koch can humbly reflect on his past actions and admit faults, why can’t I? Shouldn’t I be willing to engage in difficult conversations with those who hold different viewpoints? Shouldn’t I be curious enough to learn why people think differently than I do? Shouldn’t I be expected to embrace civility, seek common ground, and cultivate partnerships? If I can’t hold myself accountable to these expectations, then how can I expect America as a whole to be any better than I am as an individual?
In his book “What Unites Us,” Dan Rather affirms America’s desire to do better as a core American value. We can – and we must – do better. Desiring to do better is what Tocqueville noted as America’s greatest strength. It’s the key ingredient to our success.
So let’s do better. Let’s humbly discern and repair our faults. Let’s embrace civility, seek common ground, and cultivate partnerships – for the greatness of America is at stake.
Koch, Charles and Brian Hooks. Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World. St.Martins. 2020.
Rather, Dan. What Unites Us. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2017
First place (tie)
Like many of my fellow Americans, I often idolize our Republic. When I was in the fourth grade, my family embarked on a summer vacation to visit key landmarks in colonial American history, and since then, I’ve been a fan. My favorite movie was The Patriot. I loved the unabridged John Adams television mini-series. Historical fiction books are where it’s at. And count me among the masses that know the Hamilton lyrics by heart.
How can Americans not stand in awe of our Republic? After all, it was a trailblazing political system that broke trajectory with other world powers of its time and charted a new course “by the people” and “for the people.” And it remains, despite imperfections and trials. No doubt working to keep the Republic is a noble endeavor. And yet, I hope for something more.
I romanticize the Republic, but from its start, it has been a voice of the privileged few, a system first setup to benefit wealthy, white, land-owning men. And throughout the years, even with significant gains, we continue to disproportionately leave out citizens. Those whose skin color heightens their risk of prison and cyclical poverty. Those born with pre-existing medical conditions. Those who cannot speak English. Those who desire to share a life with someone of the same sex. The list goes on. For these people, the Republic has not always been an unblemished source of pride. Failing to recognize privilege in this system maintains the status quo; it keeps the Republic, but at a cost.
Moving forward I want to do more than keep the Republic. I want to be a part of building a stronger, more inclusive system as we emerge from this historical time. I do not wish for people to agree on all topics, or even to aim purely for compromise (gasp!). Instead, I wish to hear the voices of those who have not benefited from the current system. I wish for a deep understanding of the phrase “your liberation is bound up with mine” (credited to Aboriginal activist, Lilla Watson) and a viewing of political issues from the lens of interconnectedness. What do you dream of for yourself? A livable income, good schools and childcare options for your children, access to healthy food, the ability to travel and enjoy peace? Can we look first to see if our policies and beliefs extend these freedoms to others as they do to ourselves? Can we expand our thinking, listen to unusual voices, explore multiple interpretations and recognize that our Republic has not afforded these things to many?
Moving forward, I want to listen, understand, and help call attention to the voices of those who have been marginalized in our Republic and to aid opportunities for their decision-making and power. I want to be a part of building spaces where people of different races, class systems, education levels and ways of thinking intersect for a common purpose. I want our country to reflect the Republic my fourth grade self once believed in.
Third place (tie)
To keep our republic, moderates need to find our missing voice. This voice, derided by some as tepid mush, is what enables a functioning republic. Diversity is our strength but only when we talk with, and not just at, each other. Moderates make that possible.
In the polarized politics of today, there is only “us” or “them.” If you are not with “us,” then you are “them.” That someone could have views that are a little of both and some of neither is incomprehensible to a true ideologue.
Much of this is the fault of moderates. We have never really had to define ourselves. We just tended to be pragmatists who understood that ours is a country of many different views. If we were going to make any progress on anything from racial justice to highways, we needed to work together to find solutions. Moderates left definitions to others.
An example was provided by author Tayari Jones in Time in 2018. She wrote a biting critique of the middle: “People ask how might we ‘meet in the middle,’ as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space…. The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there…. What is halfway between moral and immoral?”
Ouch. If moderates are not just a point determined by two extremes, then we need a compelling statement of what we are. And it can’t be everything to everyone and still be something.
Lincoln described our nation as “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We tend to think of “Liberty and Equality” as a unified concept, but they are two competing forces. Each good but also potentially in tension with the other. Our republic is the framework developed by the writers of the Constitution to protect and promote each in a diverse country.
Outside of the extremes, conservatives generally lean toward liberty and liberals generally lean toward equality. Moderates are pulled more evenly between the two. This internal struggle shapes moderates’ nuanced beliefs. It helps moderates be more open to listening to and respecting other views. Believing as Madeleine Albright said, “We should use our opinions to start discussions, not to end them.”
Moderates have strong opinions, but we accept that others also have valid opinions reached through different life experiences. Effective solutions are woven out of these diverse opinions.
A first step is helping moderates articulate a clear message of where we stand both as a philosophy and on specific issues. The next is helping organize moderates so we can reassert ourselves. Whether we are more effective as factions in existing parties or as a new party is unclear. In a world that has become so strange, what has never worked may be the solution now needed.
Moderates must find our voice and start using it. To keep our republic, we must first restore a functioning republic. That is the superpower of moderates.
Third place (tie)
Back to the Top
The day Trump was elected I was flying back to Wichita from Alabama. On the first leg of the trip, I was seated with a Democrat and on the final leg, I was next to a Trump supporter. After a few hours of flying, I found out that I – a lifelong independent – had much in common with two staunch party-line voters on opposite sides of the aisle.
Unfortunately, they weren’t likely to have these conversations with each other and that is what we need if we are going to keep the Republic; true, honest, heartfelt conversation. The kind where you listen deeply and openly, not just to the words, but to the meaning. Where you discern their hopes, fears, and worries. And, in turn, look deeply into yourself and see where you share common ground.
Americans are not listening to each other. We’ve become a country of “if you’re not for me, you’re against me” rather than a country determined to work toward the greater good for all of its constituents. Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Without this simple, basic courtesy of listening and engaging with people on the opposite side of the table from us, we cannot hope to heal the rifts in our country.
Since Election Day 2016, I have done my best to explode my bubble, to be willing to hear what the other side is saying, and to see through the xenophobia and misinformation to the heart of the issue. This country is not a country of equality and unlimited opportunity, no matter how good that sounds in our marketing. This country was never designed to be equal. At the time our country was founded, huge portions of our population were not considered citizens, and some were not even given the dignity of being considered a full person thereby relegating the equality, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that we hold dear, to the sole domain of landed, educated, White men.
We have made huge strides in the centuries since the founding of this country, but we still have so far to go, and we won’t heal the rifts that were once again exposed over these last four years by ignoring why it happened. It is critical that we examine the “why” behind Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency and we must address it. In the same way, we must examine the “why” behind the Black Lives Matter movement and address it.
The last four years proved that America is living paycheck to paycheck, or in this case, President to President. We have no buffer for a rainy day. Like so many of our citizens who are only one crisis away from financial devastation, we learned we are only one failed President away from insurrection. We must listen to one another and be willing to work together, despite our disagreements, to heal this nation. Anything less, and we’ve failed.
Third place (tie)
Back to the Top
The concept of keeping the republic is so daunting. The very idea depends on harnessing the goodness of human nature and asking people (including myself) to do hard things, to get out of our comfort zone and to seek the common good. It feels unlikely at times and begs the question about the internal fabric that we indeed share. Are we more selfish or selfless? Am I willing to pledge my honor, my treasure, and my very life to hold the experiment of self-governance for the next generation?
The problem gets even more complex when I think about the nature of our media infrastructure being owned by a small number of interests and the motive of what they are ‘selling’. Additionally, money in politics is at an all-time high. The combination of these two forces makes the noise of selfish and profit-based motives almost deafening.
The result in my view is work avoidance and a default to a technical solution when what is needed is deep internal work and embracing adaptive solutions.
In my view, we must start by naming the challenge: First, we are not thinking clearly and second we are siloed in our echo chambers.
To think clearly I believe we must turn off the binary noise of the ‘industrial contempt complex’ of media and social media and the inciteful rhetoric of the two-party system. These forces of “either/or” and “we are good/they are bad” are damaging our soul’s ability to feel empathy, seek compromise, and think clearly. Our parents told us when we were young that ‘we are what we eat’ or perhaps we’ve heard the phrase ‘garbage in/garbage out’. We are consuming fear, demonization of others, and an idealized version of our position and it must stop. Practically, we have to ‘eat our vegetables’ and start consuming more diverse menus of ideas.
Second, we have to dream big but start small to broaden our views. Specially, perhaps we can focus on our proximity of influence – our families, our blocks, our city district, or our county. What if we pursued people on a very local level and we intentionally sought out folks with different views than us and sought to understand and to compromise? In my view these meetings should be personal and in the flesh, where you can look each other in the eyes. We have a great tool through the KLC training of seeking multiple interpretations. What if we taught our political ‘foes’ this game after we first heard their story? We all know it is much harder to ‘hate’ someone you know. I think I (and we) have to commit to getting to know people who think differently than us.
My hope is that if I can think more deeply and clearly by consuming more diverse, less polarized media and if I can get to know and maybe even love my ideological ‘enemies’, then perhaps specific policy compromises that are good for the republic will follow.
Third place (tie)
Back to the Top
To keep the republic, we need to help lower the temperature so we can actually talk to each other. The thermometer might be broken with how high the temperature readings have been around politics and that doesn’t lead to constructive conversations. Generally speaking, policy decisions are not literally life and death. There are some exceptions to that, but every issue is being treated like an existential threat and that makes it difficult to discuss calmly and rationally.
Acknowledging the true scope or severity of the issue is one way to help keep things in perspective. Another lens I try to look through comes in the form of a quote from J.M. Barrie: “Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own.” For most of us, we advocate for policies that we think would make our communities better and if we recognize the difference comes from how we want to accomplish that goal (rather than having entirely different goals), we have already taken a huge step.
One of the examples in the essay should be another unifying point; regardless of our political goals, we should denounce violence as a way to accomplish them. Taking direct and immediate harm off the table is not only a civil approach, but again helps lower the temperature. I have personally taken that step on social media with positive responses from both sides of the political spectrum.
Once we have brought people back from a volatile state, we can begin to address specific goals that are shared in common and what policies could reasonably be expected to accomplish them. To keep those productive conversations going, it is critical to avoid generalizations and hyperbole that can pull us away from the core issues by raising defenses. Equally important is recognizing those tactics by the other side and asking clarifying questions to understand the underlying concerns so they can be addressed.
Civil political discourse is certainly not easy, but it is paramount to maintain the republic and help heal the divides that have been created. We need to clarify the severity of the issue at hand, determine the parts we agree should be solved (as well as what means are off the table), and then clearly discuss the merits of different solutions. That may not always lead to perfect agreement, but it allows us to move in the right direction and understand each other as something other than enemies. As Aesop and many since have said: “United we stand, divided we fall.”
Third place (tie)
Back to the Top
Keeping the republic is difficult at this time, due to division and unwillingness to compromise. A major part of this is lack of clear, civil communication; we are bombarded with messages of divisiveness and anger, “they don’t stand for what you do, so they are wrong and bad” and we come to believe these messages and accept them without reaching out to these other factions and asking questions, getting answers, finding common ground, and working together instead of treating each other like the enemy or “the other side.”
If the problem is a lack of clear, civil communication, then the answer, simply, has to be improved, clear, civil communication. We are living in a golden age of communication; cellphones, internet, Facebook, Zoom, ect…the list could go on and on. By using that technology, we could drastically improve communication with the factions we need to reach; by using KLC leadership principles we could truly listen and connect with factions where they are at and find common ground to work from to strengthen our republic.
To that end, I believe that I can keep the republic by starting a regular Zoom meeting with the focus on civil engagement and open communication, particularly with other factions. Use the divisiveness in our current culture to get people on who have a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions, on a platform where they can talk openly about the topic and what they believe and how they believe and why they believe that way. My goal would be to use leadership principles to listen, to hear, to gain understanding, and to find common ground with these factions. Not listening to try to argue, but to just listen and hear. Topics would include anything; most prevalent would be politics and pandemic at this time, as these seem to be two immensely polarized topics in our current political climate. Finding common ground will be the start to keeping this republic, and afterwards find ways to move forward together to achieve those common goals.
It is my belief that we as people are not as polarized as we think we are. Most media sells by driving home a specific viewpoint and putting down the other side, and with our constant connection to media, it is easy to get sucked into that. But when you talk to other people, even with vastly different political orientations to yours, you find more common ground than difference. If we can start bringing this common ground to light, having real, open conversation and communication, we can bridge this seemingly wide chasm between us and work together to create strong bonds and to keep this republic.
These essays were written in response to an article that 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.