The latest in a series of civil discourse with the Newport Historical Society.
To address a question that affects America as a whole, we assembled a diverse group that included men and women, some from academia and many not, Black and white. It was notably generationally varied, ranging from the young 20s through the 80s in age. The topic was inspired by the recognition of a growing comfort level with democratic backsliding in America and the world. In fact, some studies show that the younger an American is, the less certain they are that democratic forms of government are advantageous, let alone essential. No one in our group, young or older, was inclined to argue against democracy. So, we asked, why are people moving away from what had once been a pretty universal, shared American conviction?
The conversation started with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” We asked ourselves what does this mean to us today, and are we, in fact, well informed?
We identified many reasons why Americans are perhaps not sufficiently well informed to be good citizens. Disinformation and misinformation are prevalent, and the speed with which conversations and stories can be dispersed is unprecedented. In addition, there are elements in our culture which interfere with trust in sources. These include the balkanization of our political entities and the siloing of information: many of us do not get news that is not filtered through an ideological lens.
We also questioned whether Jefferson’s quote was fully meaningful today. After all, when he said, “the people,” he meant white, property-owning men. And his sense of how people become informed, and what knowledge constitutes being well-informed, no longer matches the needs of today. What does a well-informed person look like today? What do we need to know and how do we gain that information?
Concerns primarily by older participants related to our educational system were expressed. For example, it may seem that we are not currently taught to think critically, and this interferes with our collective ability to navigate the complex information environment of today. Additional concerns about what students are taught in school today were expressed, including the tools to debate opposing opinions, and the mechanics of American government. But we resisted blaming our educational system entirely for the dilemma, and the young people in the group reminded the olds that the way things are taught changes with the times.
Some younger folks in the room also suggested what might appear to be apathy may stem from social media. Living their lives in large part online, they have become less comfortable expressing some opinions, and risking what can be a massive “calling out.” They are feeling more tentative, and more private about what they think and what they support.
Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it’s something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.
— Abbie Hoffman
Even if the methods are new, sowing the seeds of doubt, division and discord to turn Americans against each other is an old trick. The antidote is citizenship: to get engaged, organized mobilized, and to vote – on every level, in every election.
— Barack Obama
Two additional quotes spurred the conversation in the direction of action. It was suggested that we are increasingly lacking the imperative to participate in our democracy. For young Americans, several said, this is again not apathy, but rather frustration. Young people particularly, but not solely, have worked hard for political progress only to see the most incremental change. In fact, as one participant pointed out, Black Americans have been fighting for full participation in democracy for generations, with only some progress, much of which feels threatened now.
It was suggested that for some young people, focusing on things that can change outside of the classic civic participation — voting, running for office, volunteering for campaigns – can give more meaning and satisfaction. These include personal goals, supporting friends and colleagues, and engaging in acts of coordinated demonstrations and actions. These demonstrations include protests, which a previous Civic Conversation identified as one of the main ways besides voting that citizens talk to their government. But also, events like the GameStop short squeeze, which both manipulated the stock market, and shone a headlight on how unreal, and manipulatable one of the main supports of our financial systems is. These are ways that people who feel that their government is at best unresponsive can find their way to having some influence.
It was further suggested that we lack patience with the process of democratic decision-making and progress. What creates this impatience, we asked? Perhaps the triumphalist rhetoric about America and its government has contributed, by encouraging us to think that we are a meritocracy, that our government works, and that “anyone can make a difference.” We are told to be patient, that the system works, and that one election never fixes everything. But, we have learned recently that one election can break almost everything, that our system can become unable to function enough to make changes that overwhelming majorities of Americans support, and that it often seems to be rigged against those who do not already hold power. Simply voting may not be enough, and the rules of government established in our Constitution may no longer be sufficient to ensure a government of the people, by the people in today’s environment.
We were reminded not to forget the role that money plays in our societal and governmental disfunction: turning news into profitable entertainment, and buying the allegiances of elected officials with campaign contributions.
If we as individuals are struggling to find a route to an effective role in our democracy, it was suggested, all the above reasons are in play, but also, perhaps, our country is too big, too complex, and too diverse to govern. If that is true, we wondered, what are the things that can potentially bind us together? What social structures, what stories?
It was mentioned that a trend away from socialization and cultural cohesion and towards an online life was extremely exacerbated by two years of pandemic and lockdown. One of us worried that we have lost to skills to assemble, converse and act in concert. Someone else mentioned the need for leadership, which was a topic so weighty we could not pick it up.
Regarding stories, our moderator, Jim Ludes, encouraged those with an interest in this to read Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood by Colin Woodard, which provides an historical perspective on how the narratives of America have both united and divided us. He also pointed out that the founders created a form of government that would naturally be frustrating to everyone, in order to prevent violent swings and changes. But, he continued, this sense of frustration is amplified by a media that requires anger and frustration to drive eyes to screens, by politicians who use outrage to drive voters to elections, and by some, who literally see the anger and frustration as a way of breaking down the democratic system. The feeling that this is possible – that those who no longer think the democratic system serves their interests might succeed, contributes to the frustration, anger and alarm that many others feel.
America’s foundational tenets of democracy, independence, freedom and care for everyone… We in Ukraine want the same for our people…
— Volodymyr Zelenskyy
We had one last question that was not fully addressed, and this was raised in relation to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Do we/should we care about whether other countries enjoy democracy? A lighthearted but sincere answer was offered: “Yes!” This is perhaps a good topic for our next Conversation.
It is never our intent in these conversations to come to any firm conclusions on the topic, but two things are resonating a few days later. One is the question of the story of America – the narratives, even when mythic, that we tell ourselves about our nation and its place in the world. There is no doubt that there is not a shared narrative about America in use today. Can we create one? It has been done before.
The other is the image of each of us, young and old, trying to find our way to participate and have an impact on this people’s government. I have no short answer, and there may not be one, but I suspect that is involves the most traditional of individual actions – running for office at any level – and the collective actions of protest that can illuminate issues and encourage solutions. It would certainly be interesting if more young people do the former, and older folks like myself hit the streets.
Banner: United States Works Progress Administration , Funder, Sponsor United States Works Progress Administration, Funder Federal Art Project, and Sponsor Federal Art Project. All out for defense of democracy: Informed opinion counts. , None. [Between 1935 and 1943] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2008678732/.