Commentary: Democracy and peace among Americans depends on each of us now

This commentary originally appeared in the Star Tribune

By Steven Belton , Steve Hunegs , LaJune Lange and Jacob Millner

October 16, 2020

The infamous 1856 caning of abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner by proslavery Rep. Preston Brooks on the floor of the United States Senate accelerated America’s slide into the Civil War. The diametrically opposite responses by northern and southern Americans underscored Abraham Lincoln’s prescient observation two years later that “[a] house divided against itself, cannot stand.”

Today, Americans from both political parties increasingly believe that violence would be justified if their side loses on Nov. 3, and many of us are deeply concerned that violence in our streets and threats of violence against elected officials bears this out. This potential calamity for democracy should compel the attention of all of us in the remaining days before Nov. 3. Violence is no solution and cannot be an option.

Writing for FiveThirtyEight, Lee Drutman’s observations on “How hatred came to dominate American politics” contextualize why American politics have become so toxic. For example, Drutman links to a 2019 academic study which found that “nearly 60% of Republicans and more than 60% of Democrats agree … that the opposing party is a serious threat to the United States and its people.”

In short, Americans increasingly view politics through an existential lens where democracy and even the country itself is on the ballot — where the threat is not some distant enemy, but fellow citizens with whom we have little in common other than mutual enmity.

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found similar partisan polarization, but also a glimmer of hope. Specifically, it is encouraging that “fully 89% of Biden supporters and 86% of Trump supporters say that if their candidate is victorious, he should focus primarily on the concerns of all Americans, even if it means disappointing some of his supporters.”

The work of healing our nation and our pandemic-stricken world, however, cannot be left only to our political leaders. Jeffery L. Trimble Sr., a presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, argues that “clearly, a recovery of civility is needed to restore health to all forms of political discourse, including our national political discourse. …”

Similarly, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks implores us to “follow the voice of God calling on us to make this a more just and gracious world.”

Empathy, humility and respect, which are essential for fostering strong interfaith relations, are also useful for building a more civil democracy and society.

Because we internalize and act upon these societal guardrails of civility does not mean we are not resolute in defense of democracy. There is nothing uncivil in collectively raising our voices now — before we know who the winners and losers are — in support of the foundational principals that elections are decided only when all of the legally cast ballots are counted and that transitions of power, whether they come in a few months or in four years, are always done peacefully.

We must do so even at the risk of being called out as partisans by those who might seek to subvert our democracy through premature claims of victory or false charges of voter fraud.

We also call upon our political leaders, at the highest levels, to dial back the polarizing rhetoric and apparent support for agitators, some violent, as well as efforts to undermine the elections process, which is underway in the midst of a devastating and destabilizing global pandemic.

As the Pew poll indicated, Americans from both political parties want whoever wins in November to focus on the concerns of all Americans and not just the priorities of his supporters. Such an administration could greatly restore our trust in one another and our faith in institutions.

Though our republic is imperfect, none of us should feel so entitled that we shirk our most foundational civic virtue and responsibility. By voting we aren’t just exercising our support for our favored candidates, we are affirming that elections are still the best way to ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This year, given the ongoing global pandemic and public health considerations, we strongly urge all eligible voters to make a plan to vote and cast their ballot early by mail, dropping off their ballot at a dedicated drop-box, voting early in-person or allowing ample time to vote on Election Day.

After President Franklin Roosevelt died, former President Herbert Hoover, whom Roosevelt had defeated many years earlier, graciously reached out to the new president, Harry Truman. Recognizing the empathy, humility and respect embedded in Hoover’s gesture, President Truman reciprocated by enabling the former president to once again be of service as the “Great Humanitarian,” overseeing relief efforts in war-torn Europe.

May the example of Truman and Hoover, not that of Brooks and Sumner, be the North Star that guides our fractured world, nation, and state in the difficult months and years to come.

Steven Belton is president and CEO, Urban League Twin Cities. Steve Hunegs is executive director, Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. LaJune Lange is a retired district court judge. Jacob Millner is director, American Jewish Committee Minneapolis-St. Paul Regional Office.

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press


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