“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.’ You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”
The above quote is from Michael Douglas’ character, President Andrew Shepherd, in the 1995 movie, An American President. It comes toward the end of the movie, when the fictional President is lamenting the dirty politics that has attacked his girlfriend in an effort to drag down his policy agenda and weaken his re-election campaign. He talks about character and the importance it plays in being President and in American democracy.
This quote is as applicable today as is was in 1995. It is also as applicable today as it would have been in 1776.
The differences among us as Americans are obvious. It is all over the hyperactive, 24/7 news services. We cannot avoid hearing or reading about it all by the pundits. However, our current perception is that these differences are acutely dividing us, forever changing our democracy. This perspective is near-sighted for two reasons. First, we forget that partisan politics and polemics are not new. They have been present before, during, and after America’s founding. Look back at what American history shows us. Bitter elections imbued with personal attacks. Lots of political theatrics and intrigue. Even violence among legislators. Our current circumstances are neither worse nor better than those seen before. Second, we blind ourselves to the future when we cannot overcome the challenges of the present. Despite all of the challenges, big and small, throughout our country’s history, American democracy has survived and improved over time.
America’s founding was not pretty. It took a long war of battlefield struggles and sacrifices, and foreign diplomacy, to gain independence. It took also a war of words and votes in the Continental Congress and among the thirteen colonies to create the Constitution and the Bill or Rights. Many differences existed. But, people kept in mind the goal of an independent America. Compromise was reached, working together, to achieve that goal. The compromise was not perfect. For examples, slavery was not abolished; women, poor people, and African-Americans (even if free persons) could not vote; and slaves were counted as being only 3/5 of a person for the purposes of the national census. It would take many more struggles to correct these inequalities.
Yet, despite their differences and even with the limitations of political compromises, people came together to do something for the common good. Each generation handed to the next generation this work so that democracy would stay alive and things attempted to be made better. After all, we are Americans. We overcome challenges.
A key part ….. in fact, a fundamental part … of achieving consensus to get things done is civility. It is not a naïve notion or a trite sensibility. It is a fact. Citizens doing their duty through public discourse, questioning of what is going on, and voting. Citizens upholding not just their own rights, but also the rights of others, to speak, to assemble, and to vote. Our rights do have responsibilities and reasonable limitations attached to them. Free speech does not mean hate speech, incitement to riot, libel, or forbidding others to speak. Free assembly does not mean committing acts of violence or blocking others to peacefully assemble. We see too much of these bad things today.
The word civility derives from the Latin word, civilis, which means citizen. Civility is indeed part of being a citizen, but doing so in an appropriate manner. The Institute for Civility in Government says the following on its website, “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process”.
Each of us can feel passionately about different issues and can find our own ways to express our concerns and bring forth our ideas. We can have long, even heated debates. We can undertake grassroots activism to convince others of our arguments and positions. But, underlying it all, there must remain civility. If we expect others to respect our rights and ideas, then why can we not do the same toward others?
I do not think that civility has been lost. We may see and read about others acting without respect. It seems to be that the loud minorities clogging the airwaves, the newsprint, and the bandwidth get all of the attention. Shame for that. We hear others say that unless someone is protesting in the streets or loudly railing against things that they do not like, that people are being not just complacent about what is going on, but also complicit in it all. They paint people with a broad brush, using false colors. Shame on them for spreading untruths. They fail to see all the people who peacefully, many times behind the scenes, engage as citizens in effective ways.
I do believe that the vast majority of American citizens still conduct themselves mindful of respecting others. In fact, I see it everyday in the work that I do as Chair of Woodstock’s Planning & Zoning Commission and as President of the Connecticut State Medical Society. People do not agree 100% on things 100% of the time. Nevertheless, many times, consensus is achieved, sometimes after protracted efforts, to bring forth meaningful and durable good public policy. Compromise does not mean breaking away from one’s core principles. It means finding pragmatic, realistic, and common sense common ground to solve our shared problems. It also means that even if everyone does not share in the consensus, when a fair vote takes place, that everyone respects the majority decision. And, if one wants to change that decision, one follows legislative processes to do so.
American democracy is not in trouble. The pillars of its existence are very much sound. American democracy is not going anywhere. It remains right here among us because it is a part of us and we are a part of it. In our towns, we are all part of communities. Our communities together knit us together as one state. All fifty states make us a country. America, although a pre-eminent economic, cultural, and military power, is but a part of the humanity that populates our one planet. Whether some people like these facts, chose to recognize them, or even see that they exist, we are indeed all together. Civility is part of being a good citizen and part of a community.
Our differences have made us better by bringing forth new ideas based upon various experiences, knowledge, and skills. They are what drive America forward. I say, celebrate our differences and learn from them. I learn a lot when I listen to what others say, and it helps me make better decisions and do better actions. Other times, what I have to say and do helps others.
The demagogues, haters, and nay-sayers can be and should be drowned out by the larger actions of people who know why we must work together and how to do so. I am fond of saying that it is not just what one does that is important, but also how one does it. How we conduct ourselves is what shapes American democracy and our future. After all, it is indeed all about character.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Gordon is Chairman of Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission. This article neither reflects any official statement of nor any specific work being done by the Commission. Check out www.JeffreyGordon.com.