The founders in the 1770's-80's saw America as a new model of how people could rule themselves. It was, they believed, the first attempt at a republican form of government since the city states of Greece and the ancient Roman Republic. In fact many feared that the 13 state 3 million people nation would be too big to govern itself effectively.
The USA soon became a symbol to those in Latin America and Europe who wanted to defeat absolutism and monarchism. America became the example around which Bolivar and the South Americans rallied as they won their independence from Spain; the French revolted to overthrow the monarchy and in the 1840's many in central Europe began democratic revolutions (that failed). By the end of the 19th century America was seen as the “best hope of mankind”. The twentieth century - the American century - saw the US lead in the wars against monarchism, fascism, Nazism, militarism and then communism. And in all those the democracies prevailed.
Today the vast majority, of the 191 nations on the planet, are democracies or have democratic style institutions and the dictatorships that remain use democratic modeled constitutions and institutions to appear legitimate.
But, something has gone wrong with the American system. When this political system started it was based on civil debate of issues. There were great divisions over issues such as where to place the capitol, how to pay Revolutionary War debts and ultimately the issue of slavery. All the disputes, except slavery, were resolved through civil discourse and political debate and most often compromise. Not so with the issue of slavery - its extension or its elimination. In the 1970's when the matter of abortion and the Supreme Court decision of Roe v Wade became viral many compared it to slavery as a moral issue that in the political arena did not lend itself to civility or to compromise.
Today every issue has become like the slavery and abortion issues. Political debate is strident, nasty, combative and abusive in every arena: the Congress, the state legislature and the local municipal councils. Town meetings consist of citizens shouting at elected officials, calling them liars and spewing forth their version of the facts. Citizens come to meetings today armed with what they believe to be factual and they will listen to no one produce facts that contradict them. Ronald Reagan used to say that “facts are stubborn things”. Today everyone believes that they are entitled to their own facts, not just their own opinions. If a group comes to a meeting believing that the sky is green and the elected officials can prove it is blue then the people call the officials liars and jeer at them.
Without the ability to engage in civil discourse - to respect each other’s opinions but to recognize incontrovertible facts our system will not work. Without the ability to develop consensus and sometimes compromise our system will not work. And you cannot develop consensus and compromise if everyone insists that their version of the facts is the only correct version.
Lack of civil discourse has torn nations apart, sometimes for centuries (e.g. Ireland). And, it threatens America’s standing in the world--not as a military or economic super power but as the symbol of democracy to the many who venerate that symbol (e.g. the Libyan, Burmese and countless others fighting for their liberties).
I do not know how to restore civil discourse to our political system. Those who do not engage in name calling and visceral attacks seem to lose elections which encourages others to so engage. It might help if our schools went back to teaching civics so young people had some understanding of how the system works. It might help if our schools were better at teaching history so our young people understood the founding of the nation and how it came about and how slavery almost tore it apart (and did cost 600,000 lives in a Civil War). It might help if our religious institutions instead of being involved in every issue battle began fighting for a return to a more civil and respectful system.
Monday we celebrate the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He dreamed of an America where brotherhood and freedom encompassed this nation from New Hampshire to California. Today that dream is under attack, not just from those who would repeal programs or restrict rights, but from all who damage the American psyche and system with their negative ads, their false facts; their media ratings based attacks and their disrespectful treatment of the President, Congressmen, Mayors and local elected officials.
Perhaps all we need is for everyone to remember the words of what is truly our national hymn: “America, America, God shed his grace on thee; and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea”.
14 January 2012