We Must Listen — Civility Essential In Democracy
‘A republic if you can maintain it,” Benjamin Franklin remarked after the Framers drafted the U.S. Constitution. In designing the new national government, the delegates were mainly concerned with creating structures to safeguard the republic against self-interested public officials who might abuse power and trample liberty. Though not reflected in the architecture of the government, the Framers gave equal weight to those unspoken habits and virtues ideally practiced by citizens and their leaders without which they believed our experiment in self-government would fail.
They believed that citizens and leaders alike should practice moderation, prudence and civility to engage with one another constructively for the common good. These same virtues are in short supply today but are desperately needed.
Our democracy has evolved considerably since then with the advent of the internet and mass media. New technologies designed to reach ever wider audiences have paradoxically truncated meaningful communication. A free exchange of ideas ideas between citizens and their elected representatives — unmediated and unfiltered — is an essential part of shaping policy. Democracy is predicated on public policy that reflects the will of the people. Figuring out what people want involves communication, speaking as well as listening.
How well do we engage in productive and meaningful dialogue on issues of common concern? It is obvious there is no shortage of speech in our democracy. Cable news programs carry a multitude of voices offering divergent views on a range of policy questions, largely confined to their stations’ worldviews, and rarely engaging one another outside of the “firing line” format designed more for entertainment than enlightenment.
Social media has further contributed to the proverbial marketplace of ideas. Despite the proliferation of sources of news and information, it remains to be seen whether we are fostering productive and meaningful conversations or simply reinforcing what neuroscientists call “confirmation bias” — a tendency to rely on information that confirms what we already believe. This is far from the ideal John Stuart Mill articulated in his vision of democracy as a place where citizens invite dialogue as the opportunity to “exchange error for truth.” Instead, citizens seem content to retreat into their respective corners to enjoy the comfort of their own views reinforced by preferred news sources they have carefully curated.
This self-imposed isolation within our own political echo chambers is further exacerbated by declining trust in government. A 2017 Pew Research Center Poll found that trust in national government was at a historic low of 18 percent. The two trends may be mutually reinforcing. Recent news articles on the declining trust in government cited numerous symptoms but the root cause is a perceived failure by public officials to listen to the wishes and policy preferences of citizens. When citizens feel that government does not take into account their wishes, trust in government erodes.
Belief in the legitimacy of government is essential in a democracy and legitimacy stems from the will of the people as the basis for policy decisions. How can trust in government be restored? Elections are not frequent enough to learn how citizens feel about a broad range of policy issues. There need to be more opportunities for leaders and citizens to listen to one another and engage in policy discussions. This starts with citizens who might begin by stepping outside of their political echo chambers to consider viewpoints that differ from theirs. Elected officials should take extra steps to engage citizens in meaningful dialogue outside the usual channels of elections or public input limited to a few minutes at what are usually sparsely attended public meetings of state and local government.
Meaningful communication will require a concerted effort to counteract what Professor Jim Macnamara, visiting professor at the London School of Economics, terms a “crisis of listening,” starting with the creation of spaces to engage the public and create an “architecture of listening.” Some institutions of higher education such as Sacred Heart University have created spaces through its Institute for Public Policy which convenes periodic forums on topics ranging from the state budget crisis to public education in Connecticut. Public opinion polls are another important tool to gauge the public’s views. The institute conducts quarterly polls as part of its mission to inform public policy debate and foster constructive discourse on pressing issues facing Connecticut.
The same careful approach that the Founders gave to the design of government institutions should be given to the design of spaces to build civic engagement.
Lesley A. DeNardis, Ph.D., is director of the public administration program and executive director of the Institute for Public Policy and Sacred Heart University Poll at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.