Over the past fifty years, virtually every measure of our nation’s civic health—from voter turnout, to newspaper readership, to attendance at public meetings, to membership in civic and charitable organizations—has declined.
At the same time, our public discourse has become increasingly shrill, shallow, and polarized, with reasoned discourse giving way to personal attacks, fear appeals, fallacious arguments, and outright demagoguery. Is there a connection between the health and vitality of our democracy and the quality of our public discourse? You bet.
As more and more ordinary Americans have become spectators rather than active participants in our civic life, our public discourse has been hijacked by professional propagandists promoting special interests or narrow ideological agendas. As the rhetoric of these paid professionals displaces the collective voice of ordinary citizens, principled leadership gives way to appeals shaped by polling and focus groups; negotiation and compromise gives way to slogans, sound bites, political posturing, and gridlock.
The National Constitution Center’s symposium on Civility and Democracy on March 26 is about more than whether we can have “civil” or “polite” speech in America. It is about whether the Founders’ vision of deliberative democracy is still viable in the twenty-first century; it is about whether “we the people” can reclaim our voice in debates over matters of public importance.
As Steve Frank noted in an earlier post, the central question of the symposium is whether we can have “civic dialogue” that advances the “public good,” while at the same time recognizing that dissent has played an important role in America’s “social progress.” That is, indeed, a difficult question.
But it is a question that our Founders answered by designing a Constitution that embraced both popular sovereignty and the right of dissent. And it is a question that we can answer in our own day if we can only recapture some of the spirit of the founders.
In announcing that he would support the proposed Constitution despite his personal reservations, Benjamin Franklin gave voice to an attitude we seldom hear expressed in today’s overheated political environment: “The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.” That is a spirit of public service that we would do well to emulate today: a spirit of humility, good will, respect for differing points of view, and a commitment to some larger public good.