August 12, 2022
Speaking at a recent Sutherland Institute Congressional Series event, Rep. John Curtis took a moment to speak about the level of (in)civility and divisiveness in our politics. He said:
The last few years … have been tumultuous, have been divisive. And we sometimes look to our elected leaders and say, “What is going on? Why are you doing this?” And sometimes I just want to say back, “Where do you think this is coming from?” … I think sometimes we forget that our elected officials, literally, are a reflection of us.
Curtis’ comment highlights a basic civic fact of living in a democratic republic and having representative government. That fact points to where we must look for solutions.
A recent Sutherland Institute essay published in the Deseret News about how to heal our partisan divides noted the civic fact that our representative government reflects us:
In a democratic republic like the United States — where we select our own leaders and organize ourselves to achieve political and policy goals — our eroding trust and political problems are a reflection of us as a people. As William Shakespeare wrote in “Julius Caesar,” “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” It follows that part of the solution lies not with what we see in “the other,” but what we see in the mirror.
Because we, through our choices – choices to vote or not, become informed or not, communicate our views to elected officials or not, politically organize or not – influence and ultimately determine who gets elected, their rhetoric and behavior are a reflection of us as a people. Even if our choices are effectively not to participate – not voting in primary or general elections or communicating our views on important issues to our local, state or federal representatives – we are complicit in the current state of our politics by ceding the action to more extreme partisans.
This is a hard truth in our system of representative government. But just because it is hard doesn’t make it untrue. It means that the solutions will not be quick or easy.
As the Deseret News essay points out, those solutions include things like: (1) expanding our personal relationships to include those with different partisan or ideological affiliations, (2) choosing to actively participate in civic institutions such as schools, government meetings, community associations or a faith tradition, and (3) seeking to better learn about and understand American civics and history. But that is not a comprehensive list of the needed changes.
American Enterprise Institute scholar Yuval Levin recently highlighted another part of the solution: matching our words to our civic and political realities. As he writes:
Political speech should be directed to, or at least connected to, political action, which means that it needs to recognize the constraints to which policy-making is subject in our republic. Those constraints remain real, but our way of talking about politics has become disconnected from them, and too often this leaves us thinking that the constraints should be removed rather than that our political rhetoric should be pulled back to reality.
And these solutions are not mutually exclusive. Matching our political words and discussions – in campaign speeches, legislative debates and around our dinner tables – to “the constraints to which policy-making is subject in our republic” requires a knowledge of what those constraints are. In other words, it requires some American civics knowledge and historical understanding.
As Americans – as voters, neighbors and members of families, churches and other civic associations – we can get past the natural human instinct to blame our troubles on others. We can accept the part we have played in our political problems, and in doing so gain hope in the fact that we are not powerless to help things get better.
As we change the rhetoric, the relationships, and the lack of understanding that has fueled our problems, the resulting change in our words and actions will begin solving our problems as well. We will find encouragement, optimism and motivation from seeing things get better from the ground up – in the politics and policymaking happening closest to us. Just as important, we will show future generations how intentional change and thoughtful words and behaviors can make a difference in a free society.
In other words, we will ring in a new birth of freedom.
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