A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article noting that with the US preoccupied by the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and massive unemployment, “its competitors are moving to fill the vacuum, and quickly.”

They are testing how far they can go, seeking to exploit our weaknesses and fill the vacuum they perceive in world leadership.

There are good reasons we have turned inward. As a nation, we have botched the response to the coronavirus, as its recent sharp upward trajectory illustrates.

We are still feeling our way through the economic impact. And, of course, street protests and turmoil over the nation’s racial practices are preoccupying many people’s attention.

Any one of these things would have been enough to try us as a country. All together are testing our mettle as it rarely has been.

Oddly, I find something bracing about this.

As Americans, we have a tendency to feel that we’ve always come through hard times and always will. The result is often a sense that we can leave things to others: to our leaders, to our nonprofits, churches, and community groups, to our more involved neighbors.

But here’s the thing about a representative democracy like ours: it doesn’t work unless citizens do their part—and I include our leaders in this. At its heart, it asks us to find a niche where we can improve things.

I began my political career because I felt I needed to do something to help my community in southern Indiana and didn’t know where to start.

So, I asked my precinct committeeman, who enlisted me to go door to door to try to get voters involved. That led eventually to Congress, and ultimately to a committee chairmanship trying to resolve some of the country’s knottiest foreign affairs challenges.

My point is that we can all start somewhere. We are divided as a nation on political, economic, and racial lines. We face the existential challenge of climate change. Many of us on both the right and the left worry about a lack of moral perspective in how we approach our problems. All of these are ripe for actions that we, as individuals, can take.

This time of testing is an opportunity. It’s a chance to shake off the complacency we’d settled into, and to exercise the gift that our system gives us: the ability to make a difference.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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