America is confronted with a quadrilateral of crises, four different but interrelated sociopolitical climate collapses in the same moment: the climate of ignorance as science-denying political leaders ignore a rapidly-moving environmental catastrophe that is devastating America with raging fires, destructive hurricane-force winds, tornados and rising water levels; the shameful climate of lies and neglect from our elected leaders in the face of a pandemic that has taken more than 200,000 lives, permanently shuttered more than 80,000 businesses and left nearly 14 million Americans unemployed; an existential climate of racial bigotry that perpetuates and exacerbates America’s long-standing crisis of systematic racism; and a dysfunctional political system that is mired in a climate of polarized contempt.
In the best of times we would address each of these collapses individually, spacing out timing of strategies for corrective measures. But this is not the best of times. Rather, it is a dangerous time that requires urgent action before unpatchable holes are torn in the fabric of American life.
To begin, political leaders must be honest with the people. They must stop spewing out lies and irrational nonsense that excite and please their base, but dangerously prolong and deepen an already out of control destruction of the nation.
Our Deteriorating Natural Environment
With regard to our deteriorating natural environment, science and the facts are clear: human actions have caused severe damage to the land, air and water across the globe. If we do not listen to the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists and enact a major “green new deal” our grandchildren’s lives will be dominated by fighting increasingly ferocious fires, stacking sandbags around houses and buildings, boarding up windows, rebuilding destroyed homes, and fleeing in the face of mammoth hurricanes. To suggest otherwise––to proclaim that climate science is a hoax and just a passing phenomenon–– is to ensure that America’s days as a vibrant economic and social power are over.
Lies, misinformation and lack of corrective action have dominated our approach to climate warming. This disregard for the truth and rejection of scientists has also been at the core of our political leadership’s response to the Covid-19. Lives have been lost and the economy shattered because of a lackadaisical embracing of bizarre theories, quackery and a denial of facts. Despite what the president tells us, Covid is not like the flu and it will not “magically disappear.” Yes, you should wear a mask and socially distance, and for a while you will be advised to do things that aren’t comfortable or fun.
It is serious and deadly and we ought to be listening to doctors and medical researchers rather than to TV anchors or the president. This disease has already claimed and maimed too many lives, destroyed too many businesses, disrupted any semblance of family life for millions, and endangered the education of our children. We must stop listening to nonsense and start responding to facts.
Crisis of Systematic Racism
Our approach to racial bigotry follows a similar pattern. For too long African American people have been discriminated against in a multitude of ways, from redlining them out of neighborhoods, paying them less than their white counterparts, and subjecting them to abhorrent treatment from law enforcement—from police officers to judges and jailers. African Americans are disproportionally represented in poor neighborhoods and attend schools that do not have the educational and extracurricular resources found in schools located in wealthier neighborhoods. Voting places convenient to where Blacks live and work have closed since the Supreme Court ruling that watered down the Voting Rights Act, and laws making voting more difficult for them have been passed in many states. They are systematically deprived of a precious American principle: Equality of opportunity.
Unfortunately, the mechanism for confronting these three American crises is itself in crisis. The country’s political system has become so polarized it seems to have been tasered and reduced to a state that makes it incapable. The political parties seem to be more focused on attacking their opponents than enacting laws and programs that will rescue America from the quicksand we are slowly sinking into. We as a people tend to divide Americans into two tribes, them and us. The “them” are described as socialists, rioters, fascists, seditionists, bigots, anti-Semites, authoritarians; or even, as President Trump tweeted yesterday, as pedophiles. The “us” are described as patriots, caring, peacemakers.
Governance by Tribalism
The division into two tribes with each despising and distrusting the other makes finding common ground impossible. The goal is defeating the enemy tribe rather than seeking consensus around common good. The operational mentality of “What is good for my tribe” and “How can I fatally damage my enemy” erodes the unity necessary to stop our national slide into oblivion.
But the American political system offers hope. The people, not the elected politicians, are the final arbiter. If enough of us are willing to stand up to the leaders of both tribes and demand that we come together to cure our disfunction; if we are willing to seek out candidates who take our crisis of governance seriously; if we elect people who will work together to end environmental destruction, adopt rigorous scientific approaches to the pandemic, and confront the evil of racism our nation can be restored. It is an urgent task and must be done through the ballot box this November. If we don’t rise to this challenge the America my grandchildren’s children will be born into will be a diminished shadow of our founders’ dreams.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.