News outlets are routinely filled with commentary and analysis suggesting that 21st century America is a deeply polarized nation. Countless stories are presented as a battle between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, private sector and public.
Political activists fan the flames with talking points “proving” that they hold the moral and rational high ground. They convey a sense that anybody who disagrees with them is either stupid or corrupt.
Watching all this makes many people fighting mad and fills them with a burning desire to beat the other team. Far too many nice and reasonable people get so riled up by the partisanship that they do rude and obnoxious things. Friends begin to tune them out and avoid them because their intensity and single-minded focus is tiresome.
The saddest part of all comes when the campaigning ends and people learn the ultimate futility of engaging in politics as usual. Even when your team wins, nothing really changes and the anger increases.
Some commentators bemoan all the anger and long for a more civilized form of political combat. They want to believe that social media or alienated voters or some other outside force is causing the problem.
Such a utopian fantasy misses the point: Polarization is not a cancer on the body politic, it is the lifeblood of politics. Politicians grasping for power and money need polarization to pose as heroes protecting “their” voters from the “other” side.
Polarization distracts attention from the reality that politicians are less important than they think they are. It hides the truth that the culture leads and politicians lag behind.
Perhaps worst of all, political polarization blinds many to the common ground we share as Americans. As a nation founded upon the ideals of freedom, equality, and self-governance, we share a common creed:
· Just about all of us believe we have the right to live our lives as we see fit, so long as we respect the rights of others to do the same.
· We also share a nearly universal desire to create a better world by working together in community. That’s the best use of our individual freedom.
Building upon these shared values, America’s real leaders reside far from Washington and serve their communities in a variety of ways. Most importantly, they recognize that governing is not the responsibility of government alone. Instead, every organization and relationship has a role to play in making society work.
Community leaders work through a variety of local groups typically formed to meet a specific need. It could be anything from a volunteer fire department to a beautification committee or theater group. When a need arises, servant leaders seek to unleash the creativity of individual Americans, families, community groups, churches, entrepreneurs, small businesses, local governments, and anyone willing to help.
Most of these efforts produce an important side benefit that is even more valuable than the task at hand. Working together in community build relationships between people from different backgrounds and with different experiences. That builds social capital which can unify a community and a nation.
America is much bigger—and better—than its politics. Our political process may be divided and dysfunctional. But our nation is not. Thankfully, the leadership that can bring us together is already hard at work in communities throughout the land.