If there is any possibility of finding common ground and restoring civic health in our dangerously divided nation today, we must begin talking to one another again.
If we cannot do this, there is no American future.
The Father of the Constitution, James Madison, knew well that men were not angels. It is because we are not angels — because we possess both the potential for depravity and for virtue — that government is necessary, and good government is possible.
The age-old problem of injustice and faction, Madison taught, stems from the selfishness and prejudices that too often take up space in our hearts and minds. They are forms of narrow self-interest and irrational bias that cause conflict, division, volatility, and rancor within the political community.
But rather than attempt to remove these causes of faction from man’s nature (which could mean destroying liberty), or force people to think and feel the same way (an impossibility), Madison argued that we should control the effects of faction by establishing representative democratic government over a large territory, thereby encompassing a greater number and diversity of interests and views. In this new, extended republican system, narrow interests and biased views can be weeded out over time and through the layered processes required to achieve a majority opinion.
The American constitutional system Madison helped construct was not meant to shut down communication, but rather to encourage debate and deliberation, and ultimately consensus. It was intended to refine and enlarge public views, resulting in a just and reasonable public opinion.
In other words, Madison emphatically rejected what today is called “cancel culture,” the suppression of opinions that one doesn’t like. Even if you think someone’s views are false, bigoted, pernicious, or politically dangerous, Madison counseled taking great caution before considering censorship or making accusations of sedition. Facts are slippery things, he noted, for “opinions, and inferences, and conjectural observations, are … in many cases inseparable from the facts.”
For Madison, the fulcrum of the American constitutional system was the free communication of opinions among citizens, the suppression of which should be viewed with universal alarm, for such acts in time will “destroy our free system of government, or prepare a convulsion that might prove equally fatal to it.”
In a word, it is critically important that we allow the expression and exchange of ideas to play out freely. This is not only how liberty is preserved but also how people learn to refine and broaden their views. It is how we live and govern together and build a healthy and vibrant political community.
The effort to force people into agreement by silencing them is precisely the tactic utilized by despots to prevent subversion and maintain power. Thwarting communication is the stratagem of tyrants, whether they be public officials or leaders in private industry, CEOs of big tech companies or university deans and provosts.
Those of us – on both sides of the political spectrum – worried about the future of America and whether the chasm separating us politically can ever be bridged do not have the luxury of digging our heels in too deeply. We are in the midst of a crisis of civic trust, and our first order of business must be to squelch the urge to “cancel” our fellow Americans who have different views. Instead, we must engage with them in the public discourse necessary to save our nation.
Like Madison, Abraham Lincoln also understood that men are not angels. He, too, understood his task as a statesman to be that of combatting civic prejudice and leading and uniting public opinion on the basis of a just regard for the rights of all people.
“In your hands … and not in mine,” Lincoln told his “dissatisfied countrymen,” was the decision of the nation’s future. Then as now, the country was split into two camps that not only disagreed but distrusted and loathed each other. “We must not be enemies,” Lincoln pleaded. Passions and prejudice had surely strained, but they must not break the bonds of affection that unite us, he counseled.
Now, as then, it is worth remembering the “mystic chords” of our shared civic past, stretching from Valley Forge to every living heart and home in our land today, with hope that they might be made to resonate, one more time, if touched by “the better angels of our nature.”
Colleen A. Sheehan is professor and director of Graduate Studies with the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership of Arizona State University.