As we close the book on 2020 and look forward to a redemptive 2021, it’s hard not to ruminate over the wreckage we leave behind. It’s not just the daily deaths from COVID-19 that exceed the death totals of 9/11 or of Pearl Harbor, but the small businesses that were crushed and will never reopen, the loss of jobs that will never be recovered, the swelling lines at food banks in America, the evictions, and the coarse political partisanship that reflects poorly on our democracy.
The year 2021 looms great with opportunity for redemption on so many levels. One lesson learned that should guide us as we enter the new year was a piece of wisdom from our 32nd president (FDR): “The measure of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, but whether we provide enough to those who have too little.”
By all accounts, white collar workers have not done badly over the course of 2020, and many have done extraordinarily well. Millionaires and billionaires added to their piles. On the other hand, lower income workers have suffered disproportionately. One in four Americans have had trouble paying their bills since the virus outbreak because of lost jobs, reduced hours or furloughs. The measure of our progress will indeed be whether we provide enough for those who need a pathway to recovery.
The Christmas spirit of togetherness is a heralding we should embrace as we recover from 2020. It speaks to our need for humility, to heal from the cultural wars and the rancorous politics of this past year. Mark Shields, in his retirement from a 20-year stint with the News Hour this week, reminded us that “Every one of us has been warmed by the fires we did not build and every one of us has drunk from wells we did not dig,” and that “together we can’t do less for those who come after us and together we can do so much more.”
Shield’s summoning of this spirit of togetherness comes from a man who lived his life in politics and still believes that it is a noble profession, a form of public service. But he also reminds us that a measure of a healthy democracy is a healthy political environment where compromise is a courageous act, where trust is the common currency. Our best moments have come in challenging times when bipartisan compromises, like the recently passed COVID-19 rescue package, has won us needed progress and solutions. Compromise requires hard work and courage. My sense is that our country is desperate for trustworthiness, integrity, decency, and the kind of authenticity that comes from deep character in our leaders. Conservative columnist David Brooks put this notion quite simply as “putting the character lens before the partisan lens.”
My advice as we segue into the year 2021 is that first, we as individuals need to have the courage to listen and read more from the people with whom we disagree. It’s from these listenings that we will discover the common ground that returns progress and solutions. We also need to quickly elevate public health above and beyond politics. This Covid creature is neither Democrat, Republican, progressive or libertarian; it’s a common threat to our nation, a common enemy to our people. We need to view climate change as more than just an existential threat our planet and our livelihoods. We need to view the challenges of climate change as a series of tremendous opportunities to not only clear the air but to put people to work in new and innovative ways. We need to view our global competitors like we would view our Olympian adversaries. Team USA can, when we pull together, take on and compete triumphantly against all comers.
Finally, riding the spirit of togetherness into Christmas 2020 and into the New Year, let us leave uncivil partisanship behind in the flotsam and jetsam of yesteryear. Think of it like we might think of sportsmanship. Lawmaking should be a test of the best, eliminating the foul play. At the end of the day and the play, we should all shake hands and graciously demonstrate how we lift our democracy and our reputation in the world.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, an author, and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.