Editor’s note: This essay appears in the January/February issue of Deseret Magazine, which includes contributions from Jeff Flake, Gabby Giffords, Sen. Tim Scott, Cindy McCain and more.

Illustration by Kyle Hilton

I didn’t think it would happen here. 

The divisiveness, the resentment, the suspicion, the anger that pervades so many countries seemed foreign to the people I had met during my campaigns only a decade or so ago. What impressed me most about my fellow Americans was the optimism, the sense of purpose and the willingness to help one another. The Great Recession had not made us bitter; it seemed to have made us more determined to pull together and cheer each other on.  

Something happened to change that — not for everyone, of course, but for what has become a larger and larger portion of us. Following the recession, we looked around to see who was to blame for the misfortune we had experienced. Politicians and the media were quick to point the finger — bankers and Wall Street-types: “They should go to jail.” “Washington had ‘bailed out’ the guilty.”

It was not lost on people vying for our attention that stoking anger enhanced their prospects. The same was known to be true from the beginning of history: appealing to resentment and our more base inclinations could always attract a crowd. The founders took every step they could devise to protect the republic from so-called demagogues; their efforts worked for over 200 years. Several developments have combined to threaten that success.

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Institutions that enhance mutual understanding are declining. Americans are less likely to go to church where they interact with people from different races and backgrounds. Social endeavors like the Boy and Girl Scouts are waning. Even face-to-face interaction has become less frequent as we and our children disappear into our cellphones — a trend felt even more acutely because of the ongoing pandemic.

Media, embodied by the likes of Walter Cronkite, once provided information trusted by almost all of us. Newspapers, once admired for their comprehensive and accurate coverage, are closing down. Now our information is curated by apps and crafted by radio and cable networks that appeal to our prejudices. Increasingly, the most successful media personalities rile their target base.

Reagan, Eisenhower and Kennedy would not recognize today’s political discourse.

Most disappointing of all, too many political figures have stoked these divisions. Demagogues on the left scapegoat the rich; demagogues on the right scapegoat the immigrant. They each scapegoat the other. Politicians’ language is more vulgar, bullying and offensive. Reagan, Eisenhower and Kennedy would not recognize today’s political discourse.

My reading of history suggests what can heal social sickness. First, a great leader who “calls upon our better angels” can bring us together. Churchill rallied his nation to resist and defeat Nazism. Roosevelt elicited the endurance that overcame despair. Lincoln healed a nation torn apart by war, insisting on “malice toward none and charity for all.” I do not believe one can overstate the impact the leader of a nation can have for good or for bad. I earnestly pray that our president can rise to the challenge.

My reading of history suggests what can heal social sickness.

Who we choose to lead us shapes our society. I believe that it is our national character that made America the greatest nation on earth, that the public personal character of leaders like Washington, Lincoln, Reagan and Truman had more influence on us than even the policies they promoted. Today when I vote, I pay as much attention to the character of the candidate as I do to their policies. If we choose leaders who inflame resentment and division, our nation will be angry and divided. We have a choice to make: Would we rather have our “side” win to punish the “other side” or would we rather have our nation united?

But presidents and politicians are not the only leaders who influence society. Leaders of churches, congregations, classrooms, businesses, charities and homes can influence the character of the nation. When each of us encourages comity, understanding and grace, we heal. When we disparage, bully or treat others with contempt, we deepen the rift that divides us.

Who we choose to lead us shapes our society.

I believe that we should watch and read, not just sources we tend to agree with but also sources we disagree with. If Fox is your regular diet, watch NBC, CNN or ABC now and then. Conversely, if MSNBC is your regular, don’t make it exclusive. We need to broaden our reading as well. I note that news organizations like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times make an effort to get the facts and when they make a mistake, they acknowledge it. Social media has no fact-checkers, no editors and often doesn’t even disclose who actually wrote a post.

I pray for the healing of the nation. Literally. I wish there were more faith in God, more reverence for all of his children. A brilliant leader of a respected think tank in Washington has concluded that love is the only sure answer to what ails us. I think he’s right.

Sen. Mitt Romney has served as a U.S. Senator from Utah since 2019. He previously served as the governor of Massachusetts and was the Republican Party’s nominee for president in 2012.

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.