Last night as I pulled out of the driveway with my 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter in the truck, an NPR story was running the audio of crying kids at a border detention facility. I usually turn the news off when they’re with me. But it was too late. My very sensitive daughter was immediately concerned. “What’s wrong with those kids,” she asked. “Why are they crying?”
Kids aren’t conservative or liberal. They don’t think about media bias or political spin. They hear something. They process it. They respond. She heard what were clearly children in distress and she was worried for them. Now I had the choice to explain what was going on or dismiss it and move on. I chose to explain, even as we continued listening to the story.
It was actually a remarkably simple explanation. It took about 5 minutes and my kids understood what was happening, factually speaking. Then they dropped the bomb that is at the center of this week’s national upheaval: “What are they going to do about it?”
My outrage the last several days has grown hot as I’ve watched the responses from Democrats and Republicans to this question. And my worry for our nation is at an all-time high. There is one simple reason, and it’s probably not one you’ve heard: our nation’s political leaders are now fully bought in to the culture of blame and warfare and have put the nail in the coffin of personal responsibility.
Have you heard any political leaders say anything like, “we must lay aside the partisan games, sit down together, take responsibility for our part in this policy and get it fixed?” Yeah, I didn’t think so. You sure as heck haven’t heard anyone say, “this is my fault.” With alarming speed, both sides rushed to place blame (Trump). Point fingers. Hold press conferences and PR stunts (Bill Nelson and Wasserman-Schultz).
There is no real leadership. The buck stops nowhere. “Solutions” have been proposed. But they are Democratic and Republican “solutions,” designed and brought forth without the relational hard work of bringing ideas to the table that could actually pass.
Both sides have made it abundantly clear they want a political win. On social media, I’ve been attacked by Democratic and Republican friends alike for even suggesting that both sides are culpable. (To be clear, they are, over several administrations and congresses.)
This blame dynamic is really, really important. Don’t miss the enormity of this moment in the noise of social media and tribal news sources. Young children are being separated from their parents who have committed the non-violent crime of illegally crossing the border. Even in the face of this obvious tragedy and long-time injustice, no matter how you view the issue, our political leaders are completely incapable of dealing with it. It does not appear, from anything I can find, that any real conversations are happening between “the two sides.”
They’re not even trying. It’s the other side’s fault. Period.
This insidious way of thinking is not new. What is new is the degree to which it is the only way of thinking for nearly every partisan politician, pundit and political operative today. There was a time, not so long ago, when men and women of integrity would, on issues of grave national importance, set aside partisan warfare and blame, own their role in a problem and work with people from different backgrounds to solve it.
There was also a time (and there remain people and families who think this way) where taking personal responsibility for our actions was a core value to live by. When something was our fault, we owned it. We apologized for it. We made it right to the best of our ability. And even when it wasn’t our fault we asked, “how can I help make this better?”
I don’t know about you, but if I heard political leaders stepping up with that kind of language and backing it up with their actions, I’d rush to support them.
It’s why people like Alaska Governor Bill Walker are so special. In 2017, Alaska was facing an enormous budget shortfall due to the crash of oil prices. Walker, the only independent governor in the nation, untethered from party bosses, made what he called the “toughest decision he’s had to make, by far”and cut the payout that every Alaskan gets each year from oil revenue. He saw a problem. He saw a solution. He knew it would be wildly unpopular but he owned it. Completely. He didn’t blame the legislature or the markets or the politics. He made an incredibly tough decision in the best way he knew how for the long-term good of the most people possible, knowing it would cost him dearly. We need more Bill Walkers.
So what about the issue of the separation of illegal immigrant families? What can I, as an individual citizen do about this? Perhaps more importantly, is there anything I can do to bring about a new culture of leadership?
It starts with taking personal responsibility for whatever you think you can do to help address the crisis of leadership in our nation. Throwing up our hands in disgust or just complaining on social media is colluding with the status quo. Don’t do it. Ask yourself what constructive thing you can do to bring change.
Here and now, I own it. I have a vote and a voice. I’m at least partly responsible for the separation of families at the border.
So in an effort to bring change I will continue to help build an entirely new way in our politics. Finding and supporting real leaders running for office to be public servants, not just politicians. Supporting new organizations like Unite America that are building the infrastructure for a new way. Attacking systemic problems in voting and campaign finance. Advancing new ideas. Rejecting partisan rhetoric and seeking truth.
I don’t know what is going to happen with immigration and the separation of families. I know without a doubt that congressional leaders, if they wanted to, could solve this problem. So could Trump, if he wanted to. That is, if any of them wanted to solve the problem more than they wanted to win. But they don’t.
Until we demand and elect leaders who care more about people than they do about politics, our nation’s biggest problems will continue to go unaddressed. And I’m not sure how long we can survive.
Editor's Note: This article originally published on Medium, and has been republished with permission from the author.