Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Can't we all just get along?

December 1, 2010 by Dr. Steve Frank


On March 26 the National Constitution Center will present an innovative public forum examining what many see as the sorry state of the nation’s political discourse. The forum on “Civility & Democracy” is one of several public programs on the topic being presented by museums and universities across the country in 2011, through a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Center’s upcoming forum will bring together scholars, politicians, social activists, media professionals, civic leaders, social entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens from around the nation to explore this question: How can we establish civic dialogue that simultaneously produces the agreement necessary to advance the common good and respects the voices of protest that often contribute to social progress?

How can we establish a civic dialogue?

If that sounds like a highfalutin mouthful, our intention is in fact very down-to-earth. We hope that by including diverse participants from across the political spectrum in this conversation, the tone of current and future political debate will be cast in a new light, with new ideas emerging for ways to improve the public dialogue that is the lifeblood of our democracy.

A series of “think tanks” will examine the question from a variety of perspectives: History, Ethics & Political Philosophy, Law & Government, Media & Communications, Religion, and Civic & Social Entrepreneurs.

After participating in these breakout sessions, the participants will come together for a town-hall style meeting, to which the public is invited, for a general conversation. So it will be a full day of lively discussions, which will include a keynote address by University of Pennsylvania President Dr. Amy Gutmann.

The public forum will be followed the next day by a workshop, in which many of the participants will collaborate with museum staff and other specialists in creating public programs to find ways to perpetuate the conversation and project its impact beyond the Center’s walls to reach a national audience.

One of the fascinating discoveries for those of us working on the program is that the question of civility is more complex and multi-faceted than at first it may appear.

While civil discourse sounds like a “mom and apple pie” value with which no reasonable person would disagree, it turns out that civility has its detractors, or more precisely, critics who think partisanship has virtues from which civility might detract. For its critics, civility, and conversations about it, runs two big risks:

1. it distracts us from substantive and more necessary policy debates, and

2. it tends to muffle minority viewpoints.

We are being aided in the development of the program by team of distinguished scholars on both sides of that issue, who are serving as an advisory committee:

Richard R. Beeman is the John Welsh Centennial Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.

J. Michael Hogan is Professor of Rhetoric and Co-Director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Pennsylvania State University.

Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Over the next few weeks, in a series of weekly posts for Constitution Daily, professors Beeman, Hogan and Smith will share their thoughts on the forum and what they think it can accomplish.

We trust that you will find their thoughts stimulating, and we hope that they will inspire you to join the “civility and democracy” conversation online and, come March 26, in person.

Photo credit: Flickr user aidan_jones

Sign up for our email newsletter