At last week’s Civil Rights Summit, President Jimmy Carter frequently touched on the theme of empathy in leadership. “We meet with people who are outcasts in the world today,” he says about the Carter Center. In discussing the unfinished work of the civil rights movement, Carter mentioned those currently exploited and otherwise overlooked by society. As our country’s longest-serving president emeritus, there is much we can learn from his perspective in understanding the issues of today.
In the spirit of the conference, Carter called on us to see challenges to human dignity in today’s world, rather than merely raising a glass to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. In graphic detail, he elaborated on sexual slavery in American cities, grossly underreported sexual assaults (especially in the armed forces and on college campuses), economic disparities related to race and gender, and the crimes of mutilation and infanticide affecting women around the globe. These affronts to civil rights are happening here and now – not in a faraway era that we can easily dismiss as the past.
Difficult truths are hard to reconcile with the way we see our society. We want to be optimistic about ourselves, and we should be proud of the strides our country has made. We are an increasingly diverse and welcoming nation, one that has expanded opportunity and liberty, and we consciously strive to be an inspiration for the rest of the world. Yet even on our best days, we should see our nation as a work in progress. If we take a moment to remember the underserved, we may start to question our idling assumptions that the ship of state is doing all it can.
President Carter also shared vignettes from the negotiations at Camp David in 1978. Contrary to popular wisdom, the most successful negotiations are not conducted with slick magic, finessed by the most skilled rhetorician in the room. Instead, they are completed by creating real trust and identifying common values among the parties. Carter believed that summit could work because they were each persons of faith – leaders with a shared belief in the possibility of a more virtuous world. And, most touchingly, it was Carter’s expression of love to Begin’s grandchildren that led the Israeli prime minister to say, “why don’t we try one more time,” thereby pulling the negotiations from the brink of failure.
It is the display of vulnerability, in other words, that creates room for agreement. And that vulnerability can be exploited rather than used to develop trust– rival parties are naturally suspicious, and are waiting for the other shoe to drop. We see this every day in today’s politics. The American political system is necessarily contentious – elected officials are supported by constituencies who expect them to defend certain values. But do those heartfelt values mean we should be satisfied by gridlock, cynicism, and the status quo? Absolutely not.
So what is our call to action? To recognize the underserved in our society— those starved for opportunity and liberty – and to use the language of our common values to promote their well-being. President Carter expressed belief that generations oscillate between the importance of the individual and the necessity of building up the common good – and that the pendulum is now swinging toward the latter.
Most importantly for our generation, he points at the “deterioration in the quality of our government processes” and our “incapacity to act on crucial issues.” Note that President Carter mentions processes and actions, rather than perfect solutions. He does not imply that government has all the answers. Yet he encourages us toward public life as a forum to address today’s issues and to advance common values. In this vein, we should remember that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was carried on the strength of both Democratic and Republican votes, and that it would not have succeeded otherwise.
So we are called to put our best foot forward. As policymakers, we must endeavor to see the unseen, to support the healing of the world. Even if we cannot readily find a solution to tricky problems, we must start the process of talking it out. As we define our priorities – and decide how we spend our time and our political capital – we should retain perspective and avoid getting caught up in the cliché stories of the day. With empathy and a sense of optimism, we can create new ways to achieve real progress through public service. The legacy of the civil rights movement continues today.