Nourishing the Body Politic
This post was written in response to David Leonhardt’s Op-Ed column in the New York Times on July 18th, “A Summer Project to Nourish Your Political Soul”.
In today’s paper, you make the wise suggestion that each of us recognize that we don’t possess the Truth and should be open to changing our mind about the “wicked” problems that we face today. You have identified several of those important and difficult issues. And you propose a kind of personal inoculation against “the coarsening of Trump-era discourse.” The disease, though, infects the body politic and needs to be contained by robust conversation across ideological divides. Please consider the effort to nourish the body politic and not only our individual political souls.
I believe that your prescription against the ills of contemporary political discourse does not go far enough. The coarsening that you refer to is the culmination of at least two decades of growing partisan polarization and intolerance. In 2010, James Leach, then Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former Iowa Republican congressman, spoke at the Center for the Study of Citizenship at Wayne State University to argue for “Civility in a Fractured Society.” Civic discourse, then at a depressing low, has become increasingly uncivil, and public conversations across partisan divides have become rare. I mention this not because you are unaware of it because it reveals a deeply entrenched view of the world that requires more than individual reflection.
Please consider the prescriptive imbalance in your newsletter. The first part praises grass-roots resistance to the Republican health care bill, and the second part (and your column) calls for individual open-mindedness. Grass-roots organizing is surely the powerful political force that you describe. The challenge posed by uncivil civic discourse, though, is in some ways a more intractable problem than health care because it is now embedded in the body politic. In my view, we need the same kind of grass-roots activism to advance a civil civic dialogue, giving voice to those who view themselves as voiceless, and giving all the opportunity to listen to those with whom they disagree.
The current political polarization and paralysis contributes not only to citizens’ disenchantment with the political process but also to their disengagement from public life. And the erosion of civic organizations in turn erodes the public entities and spaces that foster civic engagement. The result is a passive, if angry and fearful, electorate at a time in United States and world history when knowledgeable, active citizenship is essential to the well being of communities small, large and global. The Center for the Study of Citizenship proposes both to bridge seemingly unbridgeable divides and spur thoughtful, knowledge-based active citizenship through a series of civil civic dialogues on citizenship issues.
The Center for the Study of Citizenship has begun a program of Citizen Dialogues, which brings together people with passionately different points of view to speak to one another and a diverse audience about difficult issues. Last year, we began the dialogues with a debate about gun rights and gun violence (we decided to take on the easiest issues first!). We brought together the Director of the Michigan Coalition against Gun Violence and the General Counsel of the Michigan Gun Owners and a leader in the open carry movement. The debate itself was informative and civil though tense, but the more important work of the evening was the discussion of the issue at 8-person tables with a facilitator assigned to each table. The discussions were not spontaneous. Each person had the same amount of time to offer an argument, but each person was also listening 7/8th of the time. We followed that dialogue with one on U.S. refugee policy.
We will hold our first dialogue of the next academic year on immigration on October 18th. The moderator for the dialogues is Brian Dickerson, Detroit Free Press columnist and Deputy Editor of the paper’s editorial page. (Mr. Dickerson moderated both dialogues last year.)
The Citizen Dialogue is not the solution to the problem, but we seek to make it an important step toward nourishing the body politic first through dialogue and ultimately through deliberation. I invite you to Detroit on October 19th to join the discussion of immigration policy—to participate in the discussion as one of the panelists or as one of the citizen participants.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Marc W. Kruman
Director, Center for the Study of Citizenship