A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article noting that with the U.S. preoccupied by the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and massive unemployment, “its competitors are moving to fill the vacuum, and quickly.”
Russia, China, North Korea, Iran… All are testing how far they can go, seeking to exploit our weaknesses and fill the vacuum they perceive in world leadership. Our allies, meanwhile, are expressing dismay at the U.S.’s inability to come to grips with the pandemic — symbolized most acutely by the prospect that Americans will be barred from traveling to a partially reopened Europe this summer — and at our withdrawal from world organizations, treaties, and involvement in places where we have traditionally been central to keeping the peace.
There are good reasons we have turned inward. As a nation, we have botched the response to the coronavirus, as its recent sharp upward trajectory illustrates. We are still feeling our way through the economic impact, with every likelihood that millions of people will be struggling for a long time. And, of course, street protests, concern about policing, and turmoil over the nation’s racial practices are preoccupying many people’s attention.
Any one of these things would have been enough to try us as a country; all together make this a desperately difficult time. We’ve been through times like this in the past, and no doubt will again in the future, but at this moment, our mettle is being tested as it rarely has been.
Oddly, I find something bracing about this. Not long ago I was meeting with a group of young graduate students, who asked what troubled me most about the problems we confront, and the word that instantly came to mind was “complacency.” As Americans, we have a tendency to feel that we’ve always come through hard times and always will. The result is often a sense that we can leave things to others: to our leaders, to our nonprofits, churches, and community groups, to our more involved neighbors. We ourselves don’t set out to do the things we know need to be done.
But here’s the thing about a representative democracy like ours: it doesn’t work unless citizens do their part — and I include our leaders in this. At its heart, it asks of us that we find a niche where we can improve things. It’s disheartening to see recent polls that suggest huge percentages of Americans believe things in the country are out of control — 80% of respondents in a recent NBC News/Wall St. Journal poll — but it’s heartening to know there’s something we can do about it: the country won’t be out of control if each of us steps up to the challenges we see in our own neighborhoods and our nation.
I began my political career because I felt like I needed to do something to help my community in southern Indiana and didn’t know where to start. So, I asked my precinct committeeman, who enlisted me to go door to door to try to get voters involved. That led eventually to Congress, and ultimately to a committee chairmanship trying to resolve some of the country’s knottiest foreign affairs challenges. You never know where these things are going to lead.
My point in saying this is that we can all start somewhere. We are divided as a nation on political, economic, and racial lines. We face the existential challenge of climate change. Many of us on both the right and the left worry about a lack of moral perspective in how we approach our problems. All of these are ripe for actions that we, as individuals, can take. If you’re white, for instance, how much time have you spent talking to Black people or Latinos about the hostility and difficulties they face? Making the effort to understand as best you can is an important step toward recognizing how deep-seated these problems are, and at the same time how they might be overcome.
This time of testing is an opportunity. It’s a chance to shake off the complacency we’d settled into, and to exercise the gift that our system gives us: the ability to make a difference.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.