What enables us to govern ourselves? How do we go about deciding what we want our government to do—or refrain from doing? Can we explain clearly to ourselves, or others, what we expect of those who, as elected or appointed officials, constitute our government?
Do we know and understand what we should expect of ourselves, and of others, as citizens? What is the civic contract that underpins our system of governance?
Addressing these questions is a matter of urgent concern because corrosive influences from multiple directions and sources are daily eating away at our ability to govern ourselves, to decide what we want from our government, to articulate our expectations, to seek common ground in the pursuit of solutions to difficult, complex problems. If we want to do things differently we need to think hard about how to proceed because the alternative is that we allow fear, anger, hatred, irrationality, and misinformation to dominate; we sow the seeds that ruin our capacity to govern ourselves.
At the heart of some of the most profound divisions roiling our country today is the question of what kind of government we should have—what we want our government (at any level) to do and how we expect it to act. Ironically, one thing the far extremes on the political spectrum have in common is the notion that the system we have now is hopelessly corrupt, inept, and willfully disregards what “the people” want.
What unites the extremes is a profound contempt for the messiness, the difficulty, the hard work, and the compromise required for a representative democracy in a nation of 329 million people, of which 157 million are registered voters. The “solution” both sides offer is essentially to tear things down and start over—what else do you do, after all, when “the system” is “rigged, “ when government no longer represents “the people” at all, and actually seeks to undermine and our destroy our rights and freedoms.
Yet that “solution” is usually offered without any apparent consideration of consequences (intended or otherwise), with only vague generalities about what will follow, how it would be built, or how the new system would be any different—except the assurance that “the people” will be better represented, better served, and happier.
What unites the extremes on both sides is, in other words, a profound distrust of “the people,” and a cynical manipulation of fear, anger, and hatred to further their political agendas. Indeed, even among their own respective “tribe” of devoted followers, they will brook no questioning, no doubt, no disagreement.
Dare to do so and you will be ostracized. If you happen to be an elected official, you’ll find yourself targeted for removal from office—by your own party. As for the other side on any given issue, the extremes read from the same playbook: treat them as existential threats, as enemies, as people devoted to the subversion of the United States, our way of life, our rights, our freedom, etc., etc.
It follows that, for the extremes on either end of the political divide, the very idea of civility, civil discourse, civic engagement are seen as quaint relics from some bygone, never-to-return, era or as “weapons” the “other side” uses.
None of these ideas resonate at all with those who see political discussion and debate as a “winner-take-all,” zero-sum game” proposition where your opponent must be destroyed, not just defeated. The words “civic contract” generate severe cognitive dissonance on both ends of the political spectrum.
The extremes share one other notable characteristic: they both claim to represent a “vast majority” of those who purportedly think like them and support their agendas, their policies, their programs—however radical or “non-main-stream” they may be. Not surprisingly, when a law is passed or a government takes an action at odds with their cherished principles, it has, by definition, ignored or countermanded “the will of the people.”
And, of course, every aspect of the process by which such decisions are made is hopelessly corrupt anyway, so subverting the “will of the people” is to be expected.
To suggest that issues are complex and complicated, that some degree of knowledge (if not expertise and professional competency) is needed to find solutions to such problems, well that’s just an elitist dodge meant to obscure nefarious machinations aimed at silencing the “vast majority.”
So let’s get real.
The extremes on either end of the political divide do not represent “vast majorities.” They have no interest in discussing or debating the merits of any but their preferred approach to a given issue or problem.
We face numerous, extremely difficult, challenges that cannot and will not be solved by ignorance, by lack of knowledge, by relying on only select sources of information that confirm already held views and beliefs.
We can no longer afford to allow the extremes, however loud, or provocative, to dictate how we address those challenges—to hijack, misrepresent, or manipulate the processes we have established to decide what we want our government to do.
We need to restore confidence in the civic contract that underpins our system of governance.
What is our civic contract? For each of us as citizens, it is the conscious, deliberate embrace of trust in each other, in the institutions of government we have created, and in those we have elected or appointed to represent us. For those who serve us as the government it is also the responsibility to adhere to the highest standards of honesty, ethical conduct, and respect for the people who put them in their positions.
The three essential pillars of a civic contract are: civility, civil discourse, and civic engagement. In this context:
• Civility. Showing respect for the views of others whether they align with ours or diverge markedly.
• Civil discourse. Discussion and debate that embodies respect for all perspectives and trust in the good intentions of those involved in the exchange of ideas and views on issues confronting the community.
• Civic engagement. Being informed and involved in the processes by which decisions are made affecting the community—ensuring that our governmental representatives and institutions are held accountable and serve the interests of the community.
When you encounter a group that is unwilling to acknowledge or embrace the elements of the civic contract binding us together, look closely and be wary. Despite what they may claim, they are not interested in serving the interests of any but their own; they are not interested in government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” except for “their” people.
Ken Stringer is a Sequim resident.