ABC’s new hit show Designated Survivor begins with one of the most catastrophic moments in recent primetime memory.
Just minutes into the State of the Union address, the Capitol building is destroyed by a bomb, killing the president, every lawmaker and every member of the president’s cabinet in an instant.
In the wake of the horrific attack, the mild-mannered U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Tom Kirkman—played by Kiefer Sutherland—becomes president of the United States, and now, the unknown politician must guide America in its darkest hour.
Based on an actual policy—called, yes, “designated survivor”—the show is about the actual Washington official assigned to wait in a safe location until after the State of the Union address—an event that almost every elected official in Washington attends. In the scenario that everyone is somehow killed, that individual will become president.
But because the likelihood of an attack is so incredibly low, typically, the designated survivor is someone not important enough to attend the president’s biggest night. In Kirkman’s case, he’d actually been fired the same morning, and would soon be given a new job with no political power or influence to enact social change.
It’s an intriguing set-up.
But the premise isn’t the most compelling part of the show. Especially this year.
Earlier this week, the nation bore witness to one of the most anticipated presidential debates in recent history, and almost no one was watching for the right reason. In a year where politics have become so polarized that candidates are regularly attacking each other’s family members, the debates aren’t that important: At this point, most people have already decided if they are voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
People weren’t tuning in to decide. They were tuned in to watch a fight.
And that’s what they got.
Even before it started, one of the candidates threatened to invite a person to the debate who had an affair with their opponent’s spouse, so they would have to see them from the stage. Days before, the other called half of their opponent’s supporters a “basket of deplorables.”
It’s been that kind of election.
It’s gotten to the point were there is no longer political dialogue. There just seems to be a lot of yelling.
America is divided. Politics have gotten ugly.
That’s where Tom Kirkman comes in.
At the end of the first episode [there’s a minor spoiler, but nothing that isn’t really evident from the trailer], Tom Kirkman, who is now the president of the United States, sits down to address the nation.
He looks at the camera, filled with all of the confidence he can muster, and utters the words, “My fellow Americans …”
The show is based on a fictional tragedy, but plays on a very real sense of unity that, these days, seems to be increasingly rare. Some people may remember these types of moments, after a national disaster or even a national triumph, when people tune in to watch the president discuss the moment’s significance.
In those, often brief, moments, we are all able to put our politics and feelings about our elected officials aside and share a moment of reflection.
In those moments, we aren’t liberals and conservatives—we’re neighbors who share a country.
Sure, Designated Survivor will likely play out like an action thriller, but at its core it’s about a leader trying to unify a country in its a hour of need. That’s why we’re watching.
It shouldn’t take a tragedy to bring people together. It shouldn’t take a moment of collective reflection, grief or even celebration to make people act with civility toward each other. This show should remind us of that.
Across the Aisle
Earlier this week, a photo of two of the most powerful people in the world went viral. While attending the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Obama and Bush families greeted each other.
As they approached, first lady Michelle Obama reached over and gave former President Bush a two-armed hug. The moment of genuine warmth and personal affection almost instantly went viral.
But the reason the photo was shared so much wasn’t simply because it was a moment of human connection. It was because for many, it just seemed so surprising. Michelle Obama is a Democrat. Bush, a Republican. These two families are supposed to be rivals. And this, we’ve been conditioned to believe, isn’t how rivals—how Democrats and Republicans—are supposed to treat each other.
The image captured something we need to be reminded of. It’s the same thing that Designated Survivor has tapped into: Our humanity trumps our political affiliation.
That’s why the phrase “My fellow Americans …” is still so powerful. It’s not my fellow party-members or my fellow Christians or my fellow Facebook friends who “Like” my political rants. It’s an address to people who live under the same flag.
It’s a reminder that we’re all in this together.
And, for Christians, the implication is even deeper than that. We are citizens of a bigger Kingdom. Our allegiance isn’t to a flag, it’s to a savior. And, in this Kingdom, we love our enemies and our neighbors all the same.
We live in polarizing times, where every idea is a battle line in the sand. But these cultural moments should be a gentle reminder that unity should be the default. We can think and believe differently from others, but at the end of the day, we’re all on the same team.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.