Who We Once Were and Can Be Again

TIME magazine raised a critical issue with implications that go beyond last year’s election. “To the victor goes a nation divided. A nation split over its place in the world, over its basic values, over its future direction. … the Uncivil War is likely to continue. After such a venomous campaign, will it be possible to… reunite the United States?”

Those words come from the opening of an op-ed I wrote in November 2004.

Today: same crisis, different players. But the public’s anger and distrust have only deepened as political tribalism continues to infect the soul of the country.

“These are the pre-stages of the system coming apart at the seams.”

“The real problem is party allegiance.”

Those observations come from John and Jeremy Zogby, both of whom, along with Benjamin Zogby, make up Zogby Strategies, an organization that “provides a wide range of opinion research services.” The Zogbys don’t just show us our likes and dislikes but reflect much of who we are as a nation. Each week, John, and Jeremy team up to talk about who we are through their weekly podcasts.

“George Washington warned about political factions… about party allegiance,” Jeremy points out. “He saw the United States as a unique experiment and a unique nation that was founded on freedom of agency.” He reminds us of one of Jefferson’s key tenets inscribed on the wall of his Memorial:

“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

“To be free in your thought and have no allegiance,” Jeremy reinforces. However, “party allegiance has turned into a religion, a cult.”

So, how do we break away from that cult? How do we begin to open our hearts and minds to other people, other ideas?

Maybe it starts when we recognize that we are all travelers on the same road of democracy. We may have different beliefs, different goals, but we are all striving to “form a more perfect Union.” In that striving, however, sometimes need to demonstrate the character and courage to exercise our conscience even when it costs more than we want to pay.

Conservative Liz Cheney loudly calls out the former president for what he is and the damage he’s done to the country’s spirit and becomes a pariah to party loyalists. Cheney’s actions speak to the quality of her character.

Character is an aggregate of traits — honesty, fairness, compassion, respect, responsibility, ethical courage — that form a standard of moral excellence.  Character shows others that when the chips are down, here’s what we stand for. Our idealism, our spirit was centered in a collective purpose. We were a nation of people who, when the need arose, supported one another, and pulled together to overcome any obstacle.

But Cheney’s character appears rare in the country today. We seem to have lost that unifying purpose where we looked up to people with integrity instead condemning them. We need to revive the spirit of the country where we not only fought for liberty, but basic human rights; where we fought for what was right rather than settle for what was expedient.

It’s the kind of integrity that inspired Jeffrey Wigand, the highest-ranking tobacco insider, to publicly speak out against big tobacco despite the personal harm he endured.

Sadly, we seem to be short on Jeff Wigands and Liz Cheneys when we need them most.

We need ethical role models to show us the way back to where we used to be, when the country stood up to bullies even those who came from the shadows of our own prejudices and showed the world who we were and what we stood for.

Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said, “the wise man does not teach by words but by deeds.” Our political leaders are only a reflection of who we are as a nation. Only when we begin to demonstrate traits of character will our leaders understand that we expect nothing less.

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