During a recent healing service at my church, I was asked by the two priests officiating what I would like for them to pray for before they anointed my head with oil. I almost couldn’t believe what I was asking for when I simply replied, “Please pray that our nation gets through the midterm elections with no political violence.” Given this prayer request was made several weeks before the brutal attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul, I now pray that political violence isn’t somehow sadly and sickeningly becoming our “new normal” in American politics.
Having served nine years in office as mayor of Augusta, Ga., I can attest firsthand to the fact that politics are not for the faint of heart and have always involved negative rhetoric. During my time in office, there was a seemingly endless stream of issues our local government dealt with that became heated but never turned truly ugly or dangerous. Even in the midst of our most controversial issues, I continued to intentionally interact with people at the grassroots level in all areas of our city in order to keep my finger on the pulse of our community. I was always well aware that I had vocal detractors but at no time did I fear for my safety. When I exited office nearly eight years ago, I would have never imagined the dangerous state our nation finds itself in during a critical juncture in history at a national and global scale.
I must admit that as an American citizen and a former public servant, I’m extremely concerned with the state of our democracy, and I know I’m not alone. A recent CBS News poll found that 72 percent of Americans believe that democracy and the rule of law are under threat. Today, bipartisan agreement on any major issue seems to be extraordinarily difficult to come by. in fact —according to a Quinnipiac University poll, 69% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans believe America’s democracy is on the brink of collapse.
So, what is the greatest threat to our democracy? When posed this question by Anderson Cooper in a recent 60 Minutes interview, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates answered that “extreme polarization” is the greatest threat to American democracy. He went on to say, “The greatest threat is found within the two square miles that encompass the White House and the Capital Building.” Whether or not you agree with Mr. Gates politically, regardless of our political affiliation, or lack thereof, we should all find the words of a Washington insider sobering.
While serving in office, one of my primary objectives was to act as a bridgebuilder in bringing our city together on common ground. I kept at the forefront of my mind the fact that I served 200,000 citizens, some who voted for me, some who voted against me and some who didn’t vote at all but all of whose needs I needed to value equally. I also had a diligent focus on consensus building and recognizing the differences of my elected colleagues while treating them with dignity and respect. During our time working together we were able to attract over $1 billion in economic investment creating thousands of jobs, build many new public buildings, and create an award-winning revitalization initiative in the historic African American neighborhood of Laney-Walker/Bethlehem. It wasn’t always pretty, as government never is, but I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish by working together across any perceived lines of difference, political or otherwise.
It’s encouraging to see bridge-building organizations following a similar ethos to the one I championed in office work to mend our frayed society. One of these, Starts With Us, is working to help Americans understand their agency by fostering what they affectionately call “The Three C’s” – curiosity, compassion, and courage – as daily habits to overcome the polarization, blind tribalism, and dehumanization threatening our democracy.
I recently joined Starts With Us for “man on the street” style interviews here in Augusta. I spent hours talking to a diverse group of locals to get their take on what’s causing the divides in our nation and what we can all individually do about them. We approached each person and conversation with the Three Cs and the experience was eye-opening. We’re constantly told how divided we are, how dire the state of affairs is (which is true to a certain extent), but we are actually more aligned than we think. Some of the common themes to come out of the interviews in each city, with interviews also conducted in San Antoni and San Francisco, were: people are upset about our divides, they feel we need to listen to each other with respect for opposing views, they think it’s important we treat each other with civility and that people are simply tired of polarization in general. A recent YouGov poll commissioned by Starts With Us showing 87% of Americans are tired of our nation being so politically divided accurately reflects the sentiment we heard during the interviews.
This experience reinforced for me that it is not the politicians, or one political party, that will heal our divides. And I say this as a former politician. It literally starts with us – every single one of us – to recognize our agency and step into it. That might look like thinking twice before commenting on social media, taking a deep breath before engaging in a political conversation, taking a step back before making assumptions about someone because of a campaign sign in their yard. It might seem small, but these everyday actions can have a tremendous ripple effect – from our homes to our communities, to our cities, institutions, politics, our nation.
If we can each take on the personal responsibility to treat our fellow citizens with curiosity and compassion while having the courage to have difficult conversations we can, and we will, change the dangerous course extreme polarization has set our nation upon. I still believe in our United States of America, but in the meantime I’ll keep on praying.
Deke Copenhaver, former mayor of Augusta, GA, is a keynote speaker, leadership coach and host of “The Changemaker” podcast. Mr. Copenhaver is a Founding Partner of Starts With Us and author of ForbesBooks Amazon #1 bestseller “The Changemaker: the Art of Building Better Leaders.”