The big tent: Unifying America

The big tent: Unifying America
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Crises can break countries. Grave disasters — whether natural or man-made — create political stress, sow division and foster grievances. In fragile states, crises often drive conflict and pit ethnic groups, religions, or regions against each other. In more developed countries, inept crisis responses create opportunities for misgovernance, corruption and exclusion — fueling deeper despair and collapse. Before, during and after crises, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) deploy teams around the world to help nations mitigate state collapse and transition back to political and economic stability. Here is what we would advise America.

First, the domestic COVID-19 response should be governed by four humanitarian principles — humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. Humanitarians strive to alleviate suffering by protecting life without fear or favor. For example, emergency responders cannot engage in political, racial, religious or ideological controversies while saving lives. Further, humanitarian action must be carried out impartially on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most vulnerable. Finally, humanitarian action must be independent from political, economic, military or other objectives — the goal is to alleviate suffering.

During this pandemic, our doctors, nurses, and health care workers have embodied these humanitarian principles. Individual action, though, is not enough. Local, state and federal governments must also organize their COVID-19 responses based on humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. The consequences of setting states against each other or encouraging disparate impacts along racial, ethnic or political lines will seed long-term political divisions that can rip the fabric of America. Instead, voters should hold public officials accountable for results and the effectiveness of the COVID-19 response.


Second, Americans must decide on an organizing political vision in the post-pandemic world; do we build a big, inclusive tent or default to red versus blue tribalism? The current reality is grim. We are living through a public health crisis, an economic collapse with 36 million unemployed, armed protestors storming state houses and intensifying political polarization.

Tribalism is easier because it taps into a history of broken politics, exclusionary institutions and dysfunctional governments. We are, after all, a nation founded upon the slavery of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans. After independence, the consequence of unresolved injustice roiled the country until we eventually descended into a civil war that killed between 620,000 and 750,00 Americans

A hundred years later, America of the 1960s was again wracked by upheaval. Political assassins murdered our president, a presidential candidate and an iconic civil rights leader. Meanwhile, young people across the country marched on Washington in mass anti-war and civil rights protests. In the heartland, American families watched nightly news reports of our young soldiers being killed a world away in Vietnam. This American story is one of political fracture.

America, however, has another history which can launch us into a more optimistic future. At times, our politics have been functional, visionary and unifying. Republican Abraham Lincoln, for instance, ran his second term as a National Union government with Democrat Andrew Johnson as his vice president. At the end of World War II, Harry Truman broke with his Democratic party and chose Republican Ohio Senator Harold Burton to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. Most recently, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBernie Sanders says he disagrees with Tlaib's call for 'no more police' Obama: Biden made 'right decision' on Afghanistan Biden spoke to Bush, Obama ahead of Afghanistan troop withdrawal MORE selected rivals Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton as his Vice President and Secretary of State as well as Republican Congressman Ray LaHood as Secretary of Transportation. Obama also asked George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to remain in charge of the Pentagon while America was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. This spirit of bipartisanship has strengthened our country during times of crisis.

American presidents have also demonstrated vision to solve national challenges. During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps that eventually hired over 3 million men for manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources. After the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik satellite, John F. Kennedy promised that the United States would send a man to the moon within a decade. Eight years later, Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Bold accomplishments build common purpose and national unity.


Crises are inevitable. For generations, America has deployed some of its best talent overseas to help nations cope with earthquakes, floods, famines, tsunamis and pandemics. We have also advised foreign political leaders, opposition activists, civil society and the private sector during times of civil war, insurrection and creeping authoritarianism. Stable, effective nations deliver a future for their citizens and promote a predictable, international order — to the benefit of the United States.

Today, the State Department and USAID’s humanitarian and stabilization teams would provide the same advice to America as it has for decades abroad.

As an immediate matter, political leaders must respond to the public health crisis with humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. To dampen the risk of structural fracture in the future, leaders should strive to deliver political solutions with inclusive institutions that are accountable and transparent to its citizens. In short, our political leaders need to build a big tent.

Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump mocks Murkowski, Cheney election chances Race debate grips Congress US reentry to Paris agreement adds momentum to cities' sustainability efforts MORE is not galvanizing Americans to confront a national challenge. Instead, his administration’s disorganized crisis response is fueling despair and grievance. The president is inciting division rather than championing the common good. He leads by pitting states against each other and inflaming differences in the pursuit of power. Donald Trump is not building a big tent; he is unleashing the forces that break nations.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.