Civil discourse – meaningful conversation about issues important to democracy – rarely occurs in the US today. Unmet requirements for civil discourse among politicians, public figures, opinion makers, and others include:
- Trust – Trust presumes honesty. Civil discourse has no room for “alternate facts.” Even the most honest person will occasionally get the facts wrong or say something later regretted, e.g., an ad hominem remark or an overly broad generalization. When this occurs, a retraction and an apology are offered. Continuing to insist that a falsehood is true erodes the foundation of trust required for civil discourse and democracy.
- Civility and mutual respect – This excludes personal attacks and requires focusing on the issues and not personalities. I may disagree with a judge’s ruling, but that disagreement does not entitle me to attack the judge verbally nor to question the judge’s fitness to sit on the bench.
- Willingness to compromise – No person, organization, or political party has all of the right answers. Not every issue is worth a fight to the death. I disagree vehemently with many of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions and views. However, he is well qualified to sit on the Supreme Court and deserves an up/down vote in the Senate. Similarly, President Obama’s nominee, Judge Garland Merrick, was also well-qualified and deserved an up/down vote in the Senate. Democrats who advocate refusing to have confirmation votes on one or more of Trump’s judicial, cabinet, or other nominees contribute to the breakdown of civil discourse and democracy. Senators reasonably vote against the confirmation of any nominee whom the senator deems is unfit to hold the office for which the person was nominated. However, unfit is not synonymous with policy differences, an inevitable byproduct of any democracy in which there are winners and losers.
- Commitment to the common good – US government is of, by, and for the people. Seeking the common good denotes seeking what is good for all US residents. Public schools and their supporters should welcome visits by Education Secretary DeVos (the more visits she makes, the greater the likelihood that she will see the vitality and importance of public schools). Conversely, the Secretary should seek to strengthen public education for all children regardless of the type of school that the child attends.
- Public discourse – People from all sides of an issue must listen, really listen to one another. If those with whom I disagree really had nothing to contribute to the discussion, I believe that the vast preponderance of them would adopt another position. Emotions as well as logic can determine a person’s views. For example, widely held fears (of change, of economic loss, of displacement, etc.) are issues every bit as real as technological change (e.g., substituting robots for human labor) that make goods more affordable by reducing cost. Good solutions take into account all of a problem’s dimensions, often requiring compromise based trust, upon recognizing that all participants seek the common good, and civility that presumes mutual respect.