A crisis forcing humility from the bottom up

Elected leaders are under pressure to mirror the unity of their societies and cooperate to end the coronavirus crisis.

AP
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II addresses the nation from Windsor Castle April 5.

When a public crisis strikes, people often rally around a catchphrase to lift their thought. During the coronavirus outbreak, the favorite tag has been “We’re in this together.” That spirit of unity has been on display from health workers to grocery clerks to neighbors who rarely talked to each other. Anyone need a mask? Contact a local sewing circle. Run out of food? Community volunteers will arrange a delivery.

What of elected leaders? They normally operate under a system of adversarial politics, even to the point of dismissing opponents or their ideas as not even necessary. Are they now mirroring the rest of society with a similar spirit of interdependence and equality?

By and large, democracies across the world have seen political parties get behind the new rules on public safety, additional support for first responders, and rescue packages for slumped economies. Last month, for example, the U.S. Congress quickly passed an unprecedented $2.2 trillion package with near-unanimous backing. A follow-up package is in the works. In addition, the Trump administration and state governors are coordinating closely.

On Monday, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, felt under enough pressure to set aside partisanship and talk. Their 15-minute phone call was described as warm and constructive in the sharing of ideas on dealing with COVID-19. Even if their cooperation turns out to be fleeting, it reflected a Lincolnesque moment of a “team of rivals” listening to each other for the greater good during a national crisis.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson – before he was hospitalized – was under pressure within his Conservative party to form a “national unity government” with opposition parties and independents. He had already consulted with unions and civil society groups on action steps. The most famous case of the United Kingdom suspending politics was the unity government under Winston Churchill during World War II.

In Israel, the virus crisis has pushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the main opposition leader, to start arranging a unity government. In Ireland, the crisis is putting pressure on political parties to form a coalition government following an inconclusive election in February.

Examples like these of pride-swallowing humility may help tone down the divisiveness of politics after the COVID-19 emergency. During her speech to the British people on Sunday, Queen Elizabeth II repeatedly used words like “together,” “united” and “fellow feeling.” She also suggested that working now as one people to end the crisis will create a societywide triumph for all.

“Using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal, we will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us,” she said. The hidden message: Politicians should work together on solving the crisis, not compete to get credit afterward. But then again, most people are already acting that way.

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