By Michael Le Roy, '89, Ph.D.,
Provost and Executive Vice President
As a student of democracy these past 25 years, I have become increasingly concerned with the drift in political discourse in American public life. Passionate disagreement has always been a lively part of public conversation in the U.S., but the parties have generally believed that they shared a common purpose: nurturing the idea of a democratic republic. In the late 18th century, this idea was new, complex, highly nuanced and untested in the modern world. The devil of this big idea remained in the details. What is the proper balance between the power of the people and the power of government? Could slavery be condoned? How should this republic relate to other kingdoms and new revolutionary governments as they emerged? Americans such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson disagreed passionately on these questions – in fact, their political disagreements strained their friendship, forged during the years of the American Revolution – but it is clear that both were committed to the establishment of a new democratic republic. This shared commitment disciplined their rhetoric and restored their friendship at the end of their lives.
Many years after the founding of the U.S., France's Alexis de Tocqueville visited, seeking to understand how American democracy worked. To many Europeans, the idea of democracy was threatening and confusing. How does a government invest political authority in the people without the people becoming a ranting, dangerous mob? How can Americans disagree about political matters without resorting to the kind of violence that tore France apart during its own revolution? As Tocqueville traveled through the country, he found an answer to his questions that even most Americans had not considered: community.
Though Tocqueville did not use the word "community," he observed that individuals in the U.S. were not part of rival mobs bent on one another's destruction, but were instead a part of civic associations dedicated to purposes that transcended narrow individual impulses. Americans had formed churches, schools, charities, and universities – groups in which members debated and disagreed with one another but remained committed to the basic mission and purpose of the organization. Tocqueville noted that Americans seemed to be practical, rather than ideological, and observed that the common purpose or mission of each organization mattered more than any individual's narrow agenda. And the organizations he studied seemed to be laboratories to train up citizens committed to civil discourse in democratic society. Finally, Tocqueville observed that good relationships within a community mattered as much to most Americans as being right on a given issue.
I wonder whether Tocqueville would find the same vibrant civic culture today that he found in the U.S. in 1823. Today there are American schools, churches, charities and universities still governed by common purposes. But I worry that the rhetoric in American civic life is losing its mooring to the common purpose of a democratic republic. As I listen to the radio, watch television debates, and read blogs, I observe political discourse characterized by three worrisome trends: monologue rather than dialogue; attitudes characterized by suspicion, mistrust, and a lack of charity toward those with different points of view; and disagreements about the nature and implications of truth that tend to obscure understanding rather than enhance it. It may be argued that these are the rhetorical characteristics of any era, but I fear that new media are beginning to reorganize society from social groups that join together to serve common purposes (schools, churches, charities) to social groups that share only common ideological perspectives (MoveOn.org, Fox News adherents, the John Birch Society, and NPR listeners). These sub-groups are certainly a vital part of a democracy, but what happens when Republicans and Democrats, Christians and non-Christians, environmentalists and business leaders cease to gather in common places for purposes that transcend narrow interests?
Because Whitworth's Christian mission welcomes believers of all traditions to join the conversation, that search for truth is realized in a context of lively discussion and mutual respect among fellow truth-seekers. Disagreement happens by design in this community, and, at times, each of us finds it uncomfortable. But it is our hope that, as we seek the nature and implications of truth, disagreements will lead to deeper understanding rather than to relativistic confusion. Whitworth isn't perfect in its pursuit of academic community, but it's our goal to produce graduates who can engage respectfully, think critically, and act compassionately across all societal differences. And perhaps institutions like Whitworth still have a role to play in the development of democratic citizens. In his analysis of democracy in America, Tocqueville observed that "The greatness of America lies not in her being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."