‘Democratic government is about much more than who wins’

Written by Derek Monson

December 16, 2020

The Christmas and New Year’s holidays offer us a time to reflect on who we are as people. The encouragement at Christmastime to give to others and focus on important relationships, and at New Year’s to make new commitments to improve ourselves, naturally challenge us to go beyond simply acknowledging that those things are important. They push us to do things that develop our character – to act as parents, siblings, sons/daughters and neighbors in ways that reflect some of our deepest, most cherished beliefs. 

There’s a civic application to this holiday mindset.

In a recent op-ed published in The Hill, AEI education scholar (and former high school civics teacher) Frederick Hess illustrates it. “The past few weeks,” he writes, “have been a stark reminder that democratic government is about much more than who wins. It’s also about respect for rules, magnanimity, patience and a bevy of other old-fashioned values.”

In other words, our system of self-government – grounded in the twin aspirations for freedom and equality – relies on intellectual and emotional commitments along with verbal and physical action that develops our civic character. Civic knowledge and participation are necessary, but not sufficient.

Hess fleshes out what this means for civics education efforts in our homes and schools: 

The health of our republic depends on students learning that the norms of democratic government are important in their own right and that the legitimacy of institutions cannot depend on whether we like the outcomes. The American democratic tradition is not that we should expect to be happy with the outcome of elections but that we’ll get our say, our rights will be protected, and the practical consequences of an electoral loss will go only so far.

This argument follows in a similar vein with the Founders’ vision for civics education. Various Founders hinted at the need for civics education to cultivate civic character when they said schools in America should “supply the succeeding age with men [and women] qualified to serve the publick” (Benjamin Franklin), create “Republican machines” (Benjamin Rush), “educat[e] … our youth in the science of government” (George Washington), and “form statesmen, legislators, and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend” (Thomas Jefferson).

As we consider whether our behaviors toward friends, family, neighbors and strangers in need reflect our deepest beliefs about how we ought to consider and treat other people, we should also consider whether our behaviors in political and policy debates and disagreements are developing the civic character required for the equality, freedom and self-government that we advocate for to thrive. If not, we are unwittingly undermining equality, freedom and democracy.

But freedom and equality mean that we can change and improve after recognizing our mistakes and missteps. In American politics, we can resolve to change our path to one that reforms and refines our civic character instead of continuing down a path that degrades it, along with our communities and our system of government.

So choose this season to develop civic character. Reject the complacent comfort of the view that only those who agree with you are grounded in reason and morality. Rise above the allure of the path that rejects democratic outcomes because they don’t fit your political preferences. Instead, reach out and establish an ongoing dialogue that helps you understand those who disagree with you, and stand up to those who attack the institutions of our democratic republic – especially when they are your friends.

If we can commit to do these kinds of things moving forward – to develop our civic character – we can truly make 2021 a happy new year.

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