Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO, AARP

This is a Time For Active Participation

As the leader of an organization that empowers people to live better as they age, and as the mother of a son and daughter—both millennials—I am disheartened by the deterioration of civil discourse in this country. We have become a polarized nation. It appears dialogue, bipartisanship, cooperation and the ability to compromise have all but disappeared.

According to a nationwide study of civility, a record high 75 percent of Americans believe that incivility has reached crisis levels. The survey, published in the Journal of Democracy, also found that only 30 percent of millennials considered it “absolutely important” to live in a democratically governed country.

Our inability to engage in civil discourse threatens our democracy. When facts are, or are perceived to be, manipulated, constructive debate is beyond reach. This may help each group solidify its base of support, but it’s not good for the country. Change is urgently needed, and we all have a role.

Last year, the Business Roundtable recognized the role business has to play by issuing their new “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” stating that businesses have a broader purpose that goes beyond “maximizing shareholder value” and “maximizing profits.” They must also invest in their workers and communities and push for an economy that serves all Americans.

At AARP, we have always fought to build a more equitable America and to improve people’s lives. It begins with each of us doing our part to enhance the public good. AARP’s founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, saw AARP as an army of useful citizens who had the ability, the experience and the desire to promote the public good.

Today, AARP serves 38 million members from all walks of life and across the political spectrum. Nonpartisanship is in our DNA. We do not have a PAC or give money to political parties or candidates. We don’t endorse or oppose candidates for office. We are an effective advocate because of our army of engaged citizens.

To our members, citizenship means more than voting on election day. It means being active participants in our democracy—becoming educated about the issues, engaging policymakers, and taking part in public dialogue. And, one role AARP plays is to facilitate that engagement. We aim not merely to inform public opinion, but to achieve the critical mass necessary to compel action—solutions.

The pandemic has given us the time and space to think about who we are, what’s important, and what kind of country we want to be. This is an opportunity for a new beginning and business and nonprofit organizations like AARP—and all of our citizen-employees—have a role to play in shaping that new beginning.

The late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan once said, “What people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise.” We are fortunate to have a unique system of government that enables us to speak freely and advocate change. These freedoms are the soul of our democracy.

But our system also places an important responsibility on us as citizens. As President Ronald Reagan said, “good citizenship and defending democracy means living up to the ideals and values that made this country great.” Let us unite to create a society that values hope over hate, faith over fear, and compassion over confrontation. Let us dedicate ourselves to restoring civil discourse and uniting behind our common values to create a sense of decency and respect for one another, so all people can share in the promise of America.