If you don’t believe in civil discourse, you don’t believe in democracy.
Several weeks ago, I attended the 2017 Eugene J. McCarthy lecture featuring former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at St. John’s University. The theme for the evening’s conversation was “Conscience and Courage in Public Life,” rare qualities in today’s political culture. While Bush spoke on many topics, including Donald Trump, North Korea, education and infrastructure reform, one underlying theme found its way into every discussion – civil discourse.
When done correctly, civil discourse is the ability to constructively communicate your ideas using integrity, compromise and humility. It does not will the destruction of the opponent but seeks the closest version of the truth through facts, analysis, reasoning and listening to solve the nation’s problems and accomplish its goals.
What many seem to forget is that this country was built upon division. The Founders purposefully designed natural friction between the Executive, Judicial and Legislative branches of government so no one branch of government would become too powerful. Instead, they created a Constitution that warranted dialogue and compromise by all parties to put forth the best strategy that would benefit all people. Thus, the American democratic system was conceived.
This is not to say it was easy. Much was at stake for those who were creating the new government, and it took great courage and patience to accomplish what I’m sure at times seemed overwhelming and impossible. However, the American culture was different back then; it was much more different 50 years ago than now with the advancement of the Internet age and social media drastically changing the way we communicate with one another.
Through social media, we allow ourselves to be brainwashed by the news we read, the news we agree with. Thus, we’ve created a society of self-righteous, intolerant people who hold their own beliefs to the highest standards while disrespecting and disregarding those who strongly believe something different from our own. Both sides preach tolerance and equality but only impart equality and tolerance on those people who believe the same as they do. Those who disagree are often met with lawsuits, hatred, condemnation and violence.
We criticize politicians and leaders who, after gathering all the facts on a given issue, change their positions. We call politicians liars and traitors for admitting they were wrong, believing humility to be a sign of weakness. We value our political affiliation and personal fame ahead of the individuals who make up this great, diverse nation. We act as if the words “compromise” and “bipartisanship” mean to give up on your own party, those who have gotten you there and those on whom you depend for their support.
James Gottry, director of marketing and legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, hit the nail on the head when he wrote “forcing conformity in a diverse society doesn’t unite, it divides. And believing you must separate yourself from – or punish – those who hold views different than your own only exacerbates the problem. You begin to see those ‘others’ not as friends, neighbors and colleagues who add something unique to the diverse fabric of our nation, but as faceless impediments to a never-never land where ‘everyone thinks like me (or they will when they grow up).’”
We must not underestimate the power of bipartisanship and compromise to make our society and government stronger. We must set aside our pride and judgment of others so we may have the courage to discuss the hard but crucial issues dividing our nation. Civil discourse is the backbone of a functioning democratic society. Without it, no democratic state will survive.