by Shamil Idriss, CEO, Search for Common Ground
The news that the next presidential debate is not taking place will be no surprise to those who sat through the first. What we saw — five weeks before the election and two days before the monumental news that the President of the United States had contracted COVID-19 — wasn’t a debate in any traditional sense. It was everything that we have come to expect from politics since 2016. With all of this it would be easy to say: Where’s the hope?
The United States isn’t united. We are divided not just in politics but in our neighborhoods and personal lives. We look across the aisle and see people who hate us. Standing up for what is right takes courage and attracts controversy when it should gain approval. This moment has everything to do with politics and yet nothing to do with politics. We cannot agree on the core values needed to bring as many people as possible to a better place where everyone, regardless of party, has fully-realized freedom, justice, and equality. With the U.S. election looming, voters are staring at the horizon and sensing the historic size of the storm — a tremendous, unsettling storm for everyone. Many of us are terrified. Across the country, we are recognizing that elections have generational consequences, this vote more than ever.
Throughout the first debate, a simple question was missing: How did we get here? Not how did we get to 2020, this year of pandemic and protest, but how did we get to this America, where the term “national community” is a farce, where fear is ever-present, where you can either fight for justice or engage with your opponents but not both at the same time. Where’s the unity we need to go somewhere better than where we are now?
The good news is that we can learn much from how other parts of the world have managed equally fractious elections, together.
History is full of countries, from Rwanda to Sri Lanka, who have confronted risks and uncertainty even bleaker than the shared crisis facing the U.S. In divided countries, elections sometimes lead to a peaceful transition of power; sometimes they devolve into protracted violence.
I live in this world every day as CEO of Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest peacebuilding organization, managing 875 people in over 30 countries. I have seen firsthand how democracies can withstand storms or collapse under pressure. For voters in the U.S., learning lessons from other conflict-affected countries is critical for protecting ourselves and our communities. From decades working with and learning from peacebuilders, I’ve learned three lessons to offer.
First, it helps to recognize that we feel much more divided than we are in reality. If your main sources of information include national political debates, media commentators, or social media platforms, just recognize that each of these sources profits, in different ways, from stoking fear and amplifying our divisions. Shouting matches sell, and fear attracts political donations. Breathless, polarized headlines only cause us to dig deeper into our trenches. At Search for Common Ground, we work in countries like Sri Lanka and Nigeria where perceptions of conflict — the feeling that you cannot speak with your adversary — fuel actual conflict. When groups think that dialogue is impossible, eventually it becomes impossible.
Second, look to engage where communities are formed and sustained: locally. The Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote, “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” The same holds for elections, which are decided first in the voting booth and then in the public response. This was why, in post-war Liberia and Sierra Leone, we built trust not just by working with senior politicians but by forming national election commissions with religious leaders, schoolteachers, and community activists: people who had earned intimate trust and shaped their communities beyond the election cycle. No matter your vote in November — and please do vote! — you can make a difference by engaging with a neighborhood school, community association, youth club, house of worship, or charity. Local communities are where people live, raise children, and build meaningful relationships. They are also places to find and build upon common ground.
Third, choose a pathway that feeds your hope, not your despair. With a still-growing pandemic, a nail-biting election, rising sea levels, economic inequality, and dozens of other existential ills, 2020 has left many of us with a sense of hopeless futility. But you have power. This summer in Lebanon, a deep economic downturn, a refugee crisis flowing from the Syrian conflict, and religious and ethnic divides were already weighing on society when an August explosion tore a hole in Beirut, killing over 200 people and leaving over 300,000 homeless. Our Search for Common Ground colleagues could have turned to despair, but they did not. Instead, they saw a chance for healing, launching the #OneAct campaign to highlight kindness and connect people with vital resources. As an American citizen, you too can choose. Maybe you find yourself consumed by railing against what is wrong with our society, a pathway that leads many to cynicism. You can choose instead to advance what is right: efforts that support the vulnerable, promote justice, and build bonds of fellowship.
My colleagues working in conflict-affected countries like Yemen, South Sudan, and Afghanistan give me hope — not only because they persevere in the face of huge obstacles, but also because their success charts a path to a better world that all of us can emulate. They do not ignore the wrongs and injustices in their societies, some of which take a very personal toll on their lives. Instead, they devote themselves to looking for hope in their communities and then breathing life into it. In the process, they not only feed their own optimism — the source of all positive change — but also make their communities stronger, safer, and more just for all. Americans would benefit from heeding this example as we near arguably the most contentious election in our history.