Don’t Count on Washington to Unite a Divided America
Leadership does not always start at the top.
In the aftermath of the most divisive political campaign in recent history, the U.S. finds itself once again in a challenging, but historically familiar place: bridging significant political and philosophical differences.
No matter how we voted, or whether we live in “red” or “blue” states, Americans cannot leave it up to Washington to find common ground. From the grassroots up, each of us must play a role in uniting our nation, in which politics exposed and exploited fears, ranging from loss of economic security to global terrorism.
We must come together by exhibiting values-based leadership principles: self-reflection, to know yourself and what you stand for, and a balanced perspective, to understand multiple opinions and viewpoints, particularly those that are different. These principles are critical for promoting understanding, increasing tolerance, and building consensus.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, which the majority of pollsters predicted that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would win, leaders from both parties sounded the right tone. President-elect Donald Trump called for unity and binding “the wounds of division.” Clinton said in her concession speech that she offered to work with Trump “on behalf of our country,” and said she hoped “he will be a successful president for all Americans.” President Barack Obama, who criticized Trump during the campaign as he threw his support behind Clinton, said in post-election remarks that “we are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country.”
Words from the top, even when eloquent and inspiring, are only rhetoric without action at the grassroots level. As the former CEO of a $12 billion health care company, I have seen the importance of empowering people at all levels to become values-based leaders, no matter what their titles or scope of responsibilities.
From the earliest days in my career when I worked in a cubicle, I recognized that my colleagues and I could not sit back and expect “those guys” (a gender-neutral term for the bosses) to do what needed to be done. All of us had a stake in affecting the change we wanted to see. This attitude applies even more in politics, where stalemate and standoff are far more common than bipartisan action. We cannot sit back and wait for “those guys” to accomplish the difficult work of uniting a nation divided and pressing for meaningful change, such as in social justice and equality.
I believe the U.S. has history on its side when it comes to rallying popular support amid political division. At the very beginning of our collective history as a nation, enthusiasm for the revolution waned among colonists who preferred to stay home in the “chimney corner,” as George Washington termed in. It took the promise of economic mobility (land and money in return for enlistment) to mobilize the grassroots. When their personal goals were aligned with the overarching cause, people bought in.
While the cynics might say that is just another case of people caring more about self-interest than shared interest, I offer another perspective. To create meaningful change, people must see that they stand to gain something—hope, the promise of a better life, the ability to make a difference in the lives of others. What was true in 1776 is equally true today, when there is a sobering economic divide between haves and have-nots.
Americans have a tradition of rallying to support causes that involved personal sacrifice and overcoming political division. From 1939 to 1941, interventionism and isolationism divided Americans, many of whom opposed entering another world war after the devastating losses of the “Great War.” Yet, after Pearl Harbor, most Americans willingly sacrificed to support the war effort. Families sent loved ones off in uniform, many of whom did not return.
Perhaps the most significant example of personal sacrifice is the Civil Rights Movement, in which African-American leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. committed their lives and even sacrificed them to the cause of equality. The movement also served as a model for promoting advancement of other groups, promoting America’s societal ideals of diversity and inclusion.
These episodes in American history, each a turning point, were only possible because of grassroots support. And so it is at this moment when people feel fragmented and divided politically, economically, and socially. No matter how we voted, we owe it to ourselves and each other to listen to diverse viewpoints, even those we find conflicting. We don’t have to agree, but we should strive to understand even before we are understood. It is the only way to find common ground at the grassroots level.
This post originally appeared in Fortune here.