In this guest column, Tim Pawlenty, former Republican governor of Minnesota, makes the compelling case that COVID-19 highlights our capacity and ability to be on the side of the angels--like essential workers that serve impartially--let's be citizens that listen, learn, seek understanding so we can move forward together.
Modern American politics too often reflects similar dark sentiments. The seething disdain with which many political leaders and their enablers currently view the other side has made yesterday’s version of polarization seem quaint.
The difference between seeing the opposition as evil — rather than just wrong, ill-informed or naive — is not a small distinction. If in our politics each side sees themselves as combating an evil that poses an existential threat to the future of our country, there’s no limit to the dark tactics, behaviors and alliances we can rationalize. While aspects of the current pandemic will be debated for years to come, one thing is clear: All the angels are not gone.
We see them everywhere every day. Nurses, doctors, volunteers, first responders, researchers, service employees, other front-line workers and family members are providing heroic services that affirms the goodness within people. Their kindness does not rise or fall based on their political views or the views of the people they serve.
Maybe their example can inspire more of us to do our part to improve our politics in America.
People who don’t share our political views are simply fellow citizens who have life experiences and perspectives different from our own. They are not all evil operatives intent on destroying America as we know it.
Politics, of course, has its share of people who are up to no good and they often get much of the attention. But they’re not the majority. Most Americans are decent people with common sense and good hearts — and we can all take a couple of simple steps to improve America’s political climate.
Each of us can do something we don’t do very often: Genuinely listen to the other side and give them a fair chance to demonstrate their sincerity and thoughtfulness.
And we can learn. Democracy requires citizens to be informed, not entertained. Our current culture places near worship-level value on being entertained, but it’s impossible to make rational decisions without credible information. Quality information can be difficult to find, considering most media platforms have enthusiastically embraced a bias that aligns with their particular political market segment. But if we listen to and learn from sources that don’t just confirm what we already believe, it may provide insights that promote common understanding.
None of this will likely yield big breakthroughs, but we may get to know and respect each other a bit more — and treat each other a bit better.
Even before the pandemic, there was a great deal of fear and anger stirring in America. Massive demographic, cultural and technological change — combined with a growing sense of economic injustice — severely stressed America’s common understandings and fabric. Many understandably feared being left behind — while others were angry over feeling not included in the first place. The American fabric may be frayed, but it’s not yet completely torn. It can be repaired, but we need to find ways to work together.
Let’s start by treating each other as Americans with different views, not as evil opponents.
Let’s grace each other with the benefit of the doubt — and know there are indeed more than devils left. Tim Pawlenty was governor of Minnesota from 2003-2011. This opinion piece was originally printed in the Star Tribune on May 19, 2020.