As the long Presidential debate season gets underway, proving as always that our political system is broken, I’m reminded of a newspaper article that appeared in 1848. Anyone who thinks that contentiousness in politics is a modern problem might consider how the abolitionist press described a Presidential candidate back then:
Lewis Cass is one of the most miserable demagogues alive. Gross in person – almost idiotic in visage – narrow in intellect – shriveled in soul – vulgar in taste – treacherous by instinct – crawling in his ambition – devious in his course – truckling to his superiors – mean among his equals – domineering to his inferiors – without one particle of frank manhood in his composition.Public discourse in America has always been contentious. But has contentiousness ever been effective? The most famous political debates in our history, between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, did absolutely nothing to solve the big issue of their day: slavery. In fact, the debates helped to fence opposing camps in intractable positions that resulted in a bloody Civil War.
In a large country with a diverse population, can there be a public arena in which, a) everyone has a voice, and b) solutions – and more importantly, problems – are effectively stated and considered?
The Minnesota Humanities Center is currently hosting a three-part discussion of public discourse in America. Each session includes a group of participants in the room at the Humanities Center and also a simultaneous public “Twitter Town Hall” (#uncoveringpublic) event. The first session was held in July, and the final session will be September 1st. In these salons, a great group of insightful people with diverse perspectives (ranging from the local to the global) is considering how public discourse works, and how it might work better.
The first two sessions have indicated to me that mutually respectful, intelligent conversations like these are themselves part of the solution to improving how we tackle big issues. The challenge, of course, is to incorporate more perspectives into public discourse on a larger scale, where the stakes are highest: Where and when is violence sanctioned? How are material resources acquired, maintained, and distributed? Beyond material measurements, how is the well-being of our society and its members defined and nurtured? Who gets to weigh in on these (and other) questions with any meaningful chance of being heard?
The political and historical realities that shape the answers to these questions are present in the room during our discussions. The roles of the mass media, historical oppression and trauma, and master narratives in shaping public discourse are topics on the table. And while nobody thinks the answers to these large questions will be finalized in six hours of conversation, my sense is that everyone agrees on the importance of discussions like this as part of a larger conversation, part of any movement to build a more just and equitable public arena.