Whether in Washington, D.C., Tallahassee, or an occasional participant in a local public meeting, you likely agree with polls. Americans are tired of bickering and distrust in our public life, but also don’t want our public officials to compromise on their values (see the Fall 2019 survey by the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service http://politics.georgetown.edu/press-release/civility-press-release-oct-2019/ ).
It’s easy to point fingers, but what responsibilities do we as everyday citizens have to help overcome the increasing incivility in our society?
At the American Center for Political Leadership (ACPL) at Southeastern University (SEU), we want to be a part of finding constructive solutions for enhancing public discourse and improving our ability to work with others with whom we may have deep disagreements on the common problems and challenges we face as a society.
To that end, the ACPL in partnership with The Good Society: A Journal of Civic Studies recently hosted a scholarly symposium entitled “Civility and Beyond, Institutions as Catalysts for Civic Renewal.” The participants included a diverse group of scholars and experts from around the country in the field of civic engagement and civic renewal.
Our purpose was to seek greater understanding of why there is a proliferation of incivility, polarization and declining civic participation. We also sought to find constructive ways to move our public (and private) discussions, debates, disagreements and interactions in productive and positive directions.
Participants included a fascinating and diverse group of scholars and civic leaders, from former university presidents to activists with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and with the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Each participant also came prepared both to present a paper written for the event and also to listen and learn from one another.
So what did we learn from this diverse group?
Our basic take away is both simple, and necessary today: civic engagement is crucial if the American experiment in self-government is going to succeed. Furthermore, civic engagement begins at an early age.
Whether in the way we teach kindergartners manners and respect or promote involvement in community programs during middle school and high school, civic engagement is crucial to sustaining a productive democracy. Moreover, developing ‘virtues of citizenship and civic engagement’ must continue through college years and into one’s life. Citizenship is a life-long journey.
Who is responsible?
We all bear responsibility for the hard work of civic engagement and respectful dialogue. This includes what I call the “Influencers” -- corporations, governmental bodies, faith-based organizations, the media, and non-profit and philanthropic organizations.
Influencers need to understand that when their employees are encouraged to participate in civic life and self-government, they are more productive, responsible and a positive reflection on their employer. By the same token, consumers of businesses, subscribers of media or even beneficiaries of philanthropic organizations, when encouraged to become civically engaged, are likely to reflect civic values.
We are convinced and believe that America is ripe for a Civic Renaissance. It begins with communities recognizing true statesmen and women, who have over time shaped democracy in positive ways. It recognizes the diversity of leaders, how their stories in communities have shaped who they are, and how we all need to respect and listen to others, if we are to revive democratic principles and strengthen our communities.
A National Day of Civic Renewal is one way to recognize role models for civility and civic leadership in communities across the nation. Teaching active citizenship at an early age, and equipping every student to have a respectful, yet passionate conversation over controversial topics, will better the ability of our nation to resolve the difficult issues which confront us. Recognizing that your adversary today, may be your ally tomorrow will create the foundation of respect for others, while sustaining our values.
We need to acknowledge that differences can strengthen, not divide us. America’s founders knew that extremely well. They designed our Constitution, with its separations of power, to encourage civil discourse, bring differences to light, and proceed toward resolution.
We must demand first from ourselves as everyday citizens, then from office-holders, business leaders, and other influencers that the preservation of self-government requires personal responsibility through citizenship.
Dennis A. Ross is the Executive Director of the American Center for Political Leadership at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. He served as a four-term member (R) in the U.S. House of Representatives, retiring in 2018 to take up the call for civic engagement and civil discourse for all citizens. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org