Mr. President, America needs a ‘stand down’ order

President Biden
Associated Press/Susan Walsh

I was in the Navy at the end of the Cold War and remember discussions with colleagues about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though we wished the Russians and former Soviet Socialist Republics well, the uncertainty of their futures, nuclear weapons and military capabilities necessitated caution. We considered them to be potential adversaries, but no longer enemies. We concluded that America’s biggest international enemy in the foreseeable future was now instability. This post-Cold War threat was unleashed by factors such as the end of a world organized into two ideological camps, poverty, hopelessness and religious extremism. It was manifesting in failed states and terrorism.

Today, there is ample evidence that things are going badly wrong in our own country. We see hate and mistrust on bold display in Congress. Elections, public health and public education officials are under assault because of bitter polarization. Unsubstantiated claims of fraud in the 2020 election, government mandates in response to the pandemic, the history of racism, and rights of transgender Americans fuel assaults. Highly-publicized murder trials involving vigilante-like actions have revealed that many of us approve of such behavior. A Supreme Court considering overturning Roe v. Wade, extraordinary gerrymandering, and serious politicization of voting rights and elections administration reinforce the view that political power is an end justified by any means. In such an environment, the gun culture in America easily could be a deadly accelerant of violent civil unrest.

We have become our own worst enemy. Americans threaten our nation’s peace and prosperity more than China, Russia, terrorism and dangerous relics such as North Korea. Our internal instability has many sources. We know what has weakened our trust in one another and our essential institutions. The most difficult to accept are those resulting from the influence of our modern societal systems — which have become too big, too complex, interconnected and difficult for us to change. 

American values encourage excessive consumption and wasteful materialism. Our political system is grossly dysfunctional and corrupted by money. Our version of capitalism is out of balance, with too many monopolies and concentrated wealth and economic power that are undemocratically large. Public education is poor and its private sector alternatives do not provide anywhere near sufficient opportunity for far too many. Our mindless adoption of technologies fails to consider their destructive impacts on society until considerable harm has been done, if we consider those impacts at all.

America’s political parties are ineffective in countering these forces of instability. One of them is making our challenges enormously more difficult to confront. Today’s Republican Party has dangerously decided that promoting and exploiting divisions arising from cultural differences is to its advantage, a means to gain political power.

In military and many industrial organizations, when something goes seriously wrong, operations are promptly halted, especially when safety is compromised. Even those not remotely associated with an accident or incident of concern participate in a review of what happened. Information is shared about how, when and why it went wrong. The purpose is to get everyone’s attention and engage them in thinking about what occurred. The goal is to correct what went wrong and take steps to prevent it from happening again — and also to learn why the organization failed to prevent it from happening. Stand downs are costly in time and resources. They are serious disruptions to business. To serve their purpose, they must be.

It’s time for a national stand down. We owe it to ourselves and America’s future to pause and think carefully about where our collective behaviors are leading us. We can’t allow ourselves to be swept along in the moment. 

So, how do we call for and implement a national stand down?

Asking Americans to support and participate in a major disruption of our society is an enormous step that will require extraordinary leadership. President Biden must meet the moment as no American president has done before. Things won’t get better if more of us just support the Democratic Party and its programs in the 2022 elections. That’s because elections are not about hope and the future any more. We’ve even moved beyond elections being cynical exercises in scaring people, blaming others and offering “feel-good” solutions to get them to vote against others. Elections now are a major battlefield in our culture war, an accelerating, all-out fight. We need President Biden to ask for a “ceasefire” by calling for this stand down. 

Congress, governors and others must join in; the president cannot lead us alone. The political risks to leaders will be huge. Criticism of the proposed stand down will be fierce. Its economic cost will be significant, and its intent will be questioned — honestly and cynically. 

Standing down will require Americans’ time, attention and engagement. I propose setting aside one Friday every three months, starting with Jan. 28, 2022, to create stand down long weekends.  These should be observed as days of community-building and public service — more like volunteer work or jury duty, not holidays. Our leaders should ask us to use this time to take steps that weaken the ignorance, isolation and incivility that make demonizing “other” Americans so easy. Each state’s federal land grant universities could contribute by scaling and spreading these new ways. When enough of us stop joining in the culture war, we will halt the advance of pernicious polarization and tribalism. Then, stand down weekends must evolve, allowing us to counter the forces of instability in our society. Hard work and participation in acts of citizenship will be required. We will need to keep at it until we’re done.     

Many Americans have answered calls to war against other nations — and once before in our history, to war against one another. Have we ever been asked to rally as a people to the causes of peace, justice, tolerance and mutual respect in our country? Beyond the short-lived exhortations for unity in the afterglow of an election victory, or some brief moment after a tragedy, have we ever been called to those causes in a way that we marked on our calendars and in our memories?  

The time is now. This stand down must be such a call, and enough of us must answer because our enemy is winning.

John J. Grossenbacher retired in 2003 as U.S. Navy vice admiral and commander of the U.S. Naval Submarine Forces, following a 33-year naval career. He directed the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory for 10 years, overseeing scientific and engineering research in nuclear and other energy resources, the environment and homeland security.

Tags American society Culture war Joe Biden political incivility stand down order

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