Benjamin Franklin famously told a group of citizens that America’s fledgling experiment in self-governance was “a republic, if you can keep it.”
That charge from more than two centuries ago bears urgent resonance in today’s climate of rigid partisanship, withering civility and complex problems that want for serious, principled discussion.
Tomorrow, we celebrate the Fourth of July, a holiday traditionally observed with picnics, fireworks and a deep gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. But this year’s festivities are tempered by trying times. We are a divided nation. Too many people are yelling. Not enough people are listening.
Americans are angry. Frustrated. We are struggling to reconcile our country’s highest ideals with its lowest practices. Our laws fail to prevent mass shootings in schools, churches and workplaces. Our courts look the other way as Muslims from certain countries are denied entry. Our country has ripped migrant babies and toddlers from their mothers’ arms at the U.S.-Mexico border. Our president wantonly attacks the FBI, the judiciary and the free press, eroding the public’s confidence in the institutions that make a healthy democracy possible.
It’s dispiriting. But now is not the time to tune out or lose hope.
America faces a moment of reckoning. Now is the time to be heard.
It’s our republic, if we can keep it.
Self-governance is the privilege and the responsibility of every American. We don’t just live here under someone else’s rule; we are citizens with a say in our country’s course.
Indeed, that is the call of true patriotism. To be informed. To harbor a love of country while still recognizing America’s imperfections. To champion efforts to treat everyone with dignity, equality and humanity. To dissent and to protest when our nation fails to honor those values, all while maintaining a culture that respects the expression of other viewpoints.
Most importantly, to vote.
In the hard-fought 2016 presidential election, where the two major party candidates presented starkly different paths for the nation, only 56 percent of the U.S. voting-age population cast a ballot, trailing the voter turnout in most developed countries. Decades removed from the bloodshed and protests that at last secured voting rights for African-Americans and women, too many citizens take this essential rite of democracy for granted.
Those who fail to vote become subjects instead of citizens. They remove themselves from the important work of tackling our nation’s problems. Our government makes decisions without hearing their voices or considering their interests.
Families and schools must step up their efforts to cultivate good citizenship within the next generation. They can show students how to seek out reliable sources of news, consider opinions that differ from their own and examine issues critically. They can explain the lessons of the civil rights movement and other causes where activists helped close the gap between America’s promises and its practices. They can help young people recognize their personal stake in our nation’s decisions on financial and social issues.
Even as we face the challenges of our time, we are heartened by displays of courage and conviction. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, an unprecedented number of women are running for public office. In the aftermath of another horrific high school shooting, students from Parkland successfully rallied for stricter gun measures in Florida.
And as the nation learned of the Trump administration’s galling practice of separating migrant children from their parents, many of whom arrived seeking asylum, several governors refused to send their National Guard troops to support this immoral mission. Americans donated millions of dollars to immigrant assistance groups through crowdfunding campaigns. The unbearable political heat forced President Donald Trump to sign an executive order ending the practice of separating families.
True patriots made a difference.
Sadly, much of our political discourse remains toxic. It’s not enough for people to disagree with each other’s ideas. In this hyperpartisan environment, opponents feel compelled to challenge each other’s decency, intelligence or motives. Political leaders from both parties have been more interested in scoring points than achieving solutions, and Trump’s divisive rhetoric has accelerated this race to the bottom. Compromise, once the product of effective governing, is now discarded as a sign of weakness.
We all bear responsibility to improve the tenor of political discussion. We must call out hate speech that serves only to denigrate and silence others. But we must protect the space where differing views can flourish and welcome the opportunity to test our own ideas. We must show a willingness to listen and a desire to understand.
Each day brings new headlines that remind us of the daunting, sometimes ugly problems our country faces. Simple efforts to promote civic engagement may seem like an undersized antidote. But an informed, engaged public has always been the key ingredient of the American experiment.
The people are the country’s conscience. We cannot go silent.