This morning my son reminded me that when he was 18, he went to Springfield with me to spend a few days in the Illinois State Senate. He said the most fun he had all week was the ride we shared with Sen. Ralph Dunn.
He sat in the back seat and listened to Ralph and me discuss issues before the Senate, trade stories about our colleagues, and laugh about our travails with certain constituents. Ralph and I occasionally rode up and back with each other and depended upon each other's goodwill to fairly represent Southern Illinois. Ralph, of course, was a Republican, and I am a Democrat. Sometimes we differed only slightly on an issue and at other times, the gulf was wider between us. But through respect for each other and an honest desire to understand the other’s position, many times we narrowed that gap.
My son asked me a question. “Dad, how did we get from you and Ralph Dunn to today?” I didn’t have an answer. But maybe it's not as complicated as it may seem. Loss of respect and goodwill doesn’t happen overnight. There is a gradual erosion.
Maybe it begins with the notion that life is only about wins and losses, so whatever it takes to win is most important, the end justifies the means. So we don’t have to see the other’s side, we don’t have to compromise, and the chasm grows between us because we insist on our way as the only way.
Maybe our fear of public failure or criticism means we don’t have the courage to be imperfect so we present a false image of perfection and strength. This makes it difficult to see others as anything but weak, masking our own sense of cowardice. It’s hard to respect “perfect people.”
Maybe our intolerance of differences makes enemies of other races, religions, ethnicities, or sexual orientations so judgement becomes more important than mercy or compassion. This prevents us from respecting others who are not like us.
Maybe our sense of self-preservation is so great it prevents us from caring about preserving the life or dignity of others. We become oblivious to their pain and suffering, preventing the empathy we need to reach out to others.
Parker Palmer, one of America’s great higher education leaders, defines a leader in this way: “A person who has an unusual degree of power to project on other people his or her shadow, or his or her light. And this power creates the conditions under which other people must live and move and have their being. Conditions which can be illuminating and uplifting to the people or conditions which can cast them into total darkness."
When we believe that winning by any means is all that counts, that the preservation of others is not important, that intolerance and judgement are more conducive to the success of our democracy than respect and goodwill, then we will have failed our children and our country.
Today was a day of sadness for me when I watched the shadow side of leadership cast the people into darkness and compel them to attack the Capitol that I love. The building will be repaired, but the question remains, “Will we the people?” Can we find our way back to respect and goodwill for each other, no matter our politics? I believe we can. I believe we must. As President Lincoln said, “ As a nation of free people, we must live through all time or die by suicide."
Glenn Poshard is a former Illinois State Senator, U.S. Congressman, gubernatorial candidate, and is a former President of the Southern Illinois University system.