K, that’s a harsh way of putting it. How about this: Would the U.S. be better off with “a strong
leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections?”
That’s a different way of asking the same thing, and in a 2017 survey by The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, 24% said this would be either a fairly good or very good way to run the country.
In a piece published Tuesday by the Brookings Institution, Rebecca Winthrop and Meg Huebeck argue that the founding fathers, having fought a war to free themselves from a strong leader named King George III, would be “deeply concerned” that so many people feel this way.
They would be “deeply fearful of strong leaders like kings,” they wrote, adding, “they would be dismayed at the idea of removing power from the Congress to strengthen the presidency.”
The authors blame this attitude by a quarter of the population on a “mix of dysfunctional politics and a lack of emphasis on civic education,” which have made many Americans distrust everything about government, including, apparently, its foundations and the reasons behind its form and organization.
That sounds reasonable, based on what I’ve seen and heard from some of the people I’ve met. So does the authors’ solution to the problem, which they identify as greater citizen engagement.
To clarify, arguing with people on social media does not count as citizen engagement, no matter how satisfying it may feel to let off steam. That will come as a shock to some.
Winthrop and Huebeck provide a list of 76 things everyone should do to be more civically engaged, and many of them aren’t easy.
No. 5, for instance, could be a show-stopper: “Talk with someone who doesn’t share your political views.”
Whoa. That’s radical and perhaps not very timely, given that the next big opportunity to engage people with opposite views might be Thanksgiving. Watch for flying turkey. It’s also not timely with impeachment hearings underway. What about that is supposed to get us in the mood for a reasonable and calm discussion?
But maybe there really is no time like the present. The idea of actually talking to someone with opposite views — the word “talk” implies listening, as well — might change a lot of things.
In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 55% of Democrats surveyed said the Republican Party makes them afraid, while 49% of Republicans said the same about the Democratic Party. Before the Republicans out there start crowing about how they’re apparently the more tolerant of the two, maybe all can agree that this is not a healthy way to run what many think should be the greatest nation on earth.
Nor does it reflect the way our parents and grandparents felt. As the authors note, back in 1964 the National Election Study found that 77% of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing almost all the time. Today, that figure is 17%. I remember 1964. My parents were Goldwater supporters. It’s safe to say they still trusted the government in spite of the drubbing he took that year.
If you go to the Pew Research Center’s web page that tracks this survey through time, you’ll notice a huge drop in trust immediately after ‘64, spurred by Vietnam and Watergate. Despite a small surge during the Reagan years, we’ve never really recovered.
Some organizations have dedicated themselves to bringing a divided nation together. The Aspen Institute is working to pop “filter bubbles,” which it described as “the echo chambers that form when we’re only exposed to ideas that we agree with.”
A group called Better Angels is working to “unite red and blue Americans in a working alliance…” The Purple Project for America wants to “rediscover and recommit to our democratic values and institutions.” There are many more.
They have their work cut out for them. It’s never been easier to fill an echo chamber or reinforce a bias. This is an age when everyone has an unprecedented set of bullhorns at hand with which to make his or her own opinions known.
Anything that requires 76 separate points on a list will take some work. But then, no one said keeping a republic going would be easy.
If nearly a quarter of us can’t see the pitfalls of abandoning what we have in favor of a dictator, maybe it’s time we all got to work.