In A CRISIS, LEADERS NEED TO DO THESE TWO THINGS​

By Mark Funkhouser

April 29, 2020

“If we can do a bit better tomorrow, we will be doing much, much better than we have ever done before.” That’s the last sentence in Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein’s clear-eyed analysis of the political situation in America today. Published in January, the book is filled with the sort of astute and insightful analysis we’ve come to expect from Klein and from Vox, the explanatory news organization he co-founded. And it sets the scene for how our political leaders have responded to the coronavirus and the economic disaster that has come with it. 

Klein packed a lot of bad news into his book, but that last line left me hopeful and inspired. Certainly, we are in the midst of an unfolding catastrophe of historic proportions. COVID-19 has killed more than 50,000 Americans, and many millions have lost their livelihoods. Annie Lowrey reported in The Atlantic that 52 percent of Americans under age 45 “have lost a job, been put on leave, or had their hours reduced due to the pandemic.” 

Our country had a long list of pre-existing conditions that have been highlighted and made worse by COVID-19. Yet here’s the thing: As bad as things were before this crisis, and as bad as they currently are, it’s important to remember that things have been worse in the past. It’s true that, as Klein writes, “for all our problems, we have been a worse and uglier country at almost every other point in our history.” 

Futurist Rebecca Ryan, a friend of mine, says that in a crisis the best leaders need to give people two things: perspective and control. Klein gives us both. We’ve had it worse, and we need to focus on the little things, not massive pie-in-the-sky transformation.

That’s doable, and it brings to me to my final point. Klein writes that “we give too much attention to national politics, which we can do very little to change, and too little attention to state and local politics, where our voices can matter much more.” Amen, brother! 

The increasing nationalizing of our politics has been a plague almost as toxic as the coronavirus, but there are antibodies being developed across the country. Watching mayors and governors lead through this crisis, and watching their constituents watch them and respond positively, signals a growing shift toward more interest in and respect for state and local governments. In the local-government space, groups like Engaging Local Government Leaders, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and the Government Finance Officers Association have stepped up in a big way to help their members cope with both the public-health crisis and the economic crisis. 

We’re going to get through this, and when we do, we will indeed be “doing much, much better than we have ever done before.” Thanks to each of you for all you do to make it so. Give me a call at 816-820-9752, or shoot me an email at mark@mayorfunk.com if you think I can help you.

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