Editor’s Note: Robert Redford is an actor, director, producer and trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
I have a lot of vivid memories of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s, but one in particular keeps coming back to me today, in these troubled times. I remember sitting with my parents – actually, my parents were sitting; I was lying on the floor, the way kids do – and listening to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt talking to us over the radio.
He was talking to the nation, of course, not just to us, but it sure felt that way. He was personal and informal, like he was right there in our living room.
I was too young to follow much of what he was saying – something about World War II. But what I did understand was that this was a man who cared about our well-being. I felt calmed by his voice.
It was a voice of authority and, at the same time, empathy. Americans were facing a common enemy – fascism – and FDR gave us the sense that we were all in it together. Even kids like me had a role to play: participating in paper drives, collecting scrap metal, doing whatever we could do.
That’s what it was like to have a president with a strong moral compass. It guided him, gave him direction, and helped him point the nation toward a better future.
Maybe this strikes you as simple nostalgia. I’ve got a touch of that, sure (who doesn’t right now?). But I’m too focused on the future to sit around pining for the old days. For me, the power of FDR’s example is what it says about the kind of leadership America needs – and can have again, if we choose it.
But one thing is clear: Instead of a moral compass in the Oval Office, there’s a moral vacuum.
Instead of a president who says we’re all in it together, we have a president who’s in it for himself.
Instead of words that uplift and unite, we hear words that inflame and divide.
When someone retweets (and then deletes) a video of a supporter shouting “white power” or calls journalists “enemies of the state,” when he turns a lifesaving mask against contagion into a weapon in a culture war, when he orders the police and the military to tear gas peaceful protestors so he can wave a Bible at the cameras, he sacrifices – again and again – any claim to moral authority.
Another four years of this would degrade our country beyond repair.
The toll it’s taking is almost biblical: fires and floods, a literal plague upon the land, an eruption of hatred that’s being summoned and harnessed, by a leader with no conscience or shame.
Four more years would accelerate our slide toward autocracy. It would be taken as free license to punish more so-called “traitors” and wage more petty vendettas – with the full weight of the Justice Department behind them.
Four more years would mean open season on our environmental laws. The assault has been ongoing – it started with abandoning the historic agreement that the world made in Paris to combat climate change, and continued, just last month, with using the pandemic as cover to let industries pollute as they see fit.
Four more years would bring untold damage to our planet – our home.
America is still a world power. But in the past four years, it has lost its place as a world leader. A second term would embolden enemies and further weaken our standing with our friends.
When and how did the United States of America become the Divided States of America? Polarization, of course, has deep roots and many sources. President Donald Trump didn’t create all of our divisions as Americans. But he has found every fault line in America and wrenched them wide open.
Without a moral compass in the Oval Office, our country is dangerously adrift.
But this November, we can choose another direction.
This November, unity and empathy are on the ballot. Experience and intelligence are on the ballot.
Joe Biden is on the ballot, and I’m confident he will bring these qualities back to White House.
I don’t make a practice of publicly announcing my vote. But this election year is different.
And I believe Biden was made for this moment. Biden leads with his heart. I don’t mean that in a soft and sentimental way. I’m talking about a fierce compassion – the kind that fuels him, that drives him to fight against racial and economic injustice, that won’t let him rest while people are struggling.
As FDR showed, empathy and ethics are not signs of weakness. They’re signs of strength.
I think Americans are coming back to that view. Despite Trump – despite his daily efforts to divide us – I see much of the country beginning to reunite again, the way it did when I was a kid.
You can see it in the peaceful protests of the past several weeks – Americans of all races and classes coming together to fight against racism. You can see it the ways that communities are pulling together in the face of this pandemic, even if the White House has left them to fend for themselves.
These acts of compassion and kindness make our country stronger. This November, we have a chance to make it stronger still – by choosing a president who is consistent with our values, and whose moral compass points toward justice.