Most Americans are caught up in the events of the day. Interesting developments related to our economy and other worldwide issues have created a voracious appetite for news, fostering the kind of idea exchange that draws our attention to the Founders’ ideals as they conceptualized what America might become.

Similarly, last year’s presidential election focused attention on the electoral process as emphasized in America’s founding documents, stressed in our schools, and celebrated in many of our civic organizations.

Much of our contemporary history has been focused on giving electoral rights to those groups among us who were long denied them. We should be proud of these actions.

By comparison, the legislative process – what is supposed to occur after Americans elect their political leaders – seems underappreciated by many citizens in our country. This is unfortunate, because the legislative process also reflects fundamental principles and offers great potential for improving the lives of our countrymen and strengthening our democracy. Why is this?

It begs some questions:Do we sufficiently educate ourselves on the records of our elected officials when they stand for reelection? Do we demand clarity in the positions of potential candidates? Do we educate ourselves to be potential legislators, or understand the issues in sufficient depth to know “why” our representatives voted as they did? Do we possess the skills necessary to engage in policy development? When should civic education begin? Should it end?

We often hear people complain about the Congress or state legislatures being unable to accomplish anything meaningful in a reasonable period of time. Is this surprising, given that our schools, colleges, and universities, for whatever reasons, often fail to offer courses or opportunities that focus on the promotion of respectful, civil debate, argumentation and reasoning on controversial policy issues?

Half a century ago, “civics” was taught in many American high schools. Today, such courses are rare. Students with an interest in public policy are often left to acquire the skills that they need outside the classroom, in debating clubs, mock trial teams, or human rights committees. Is making civics voluntary a healthy development in a vibrant, ever-changing democracy?

Everyone should develop the skills necessary to engage actively in discussions about difficult, emotional issues. The ability to approach a difficult policy issue with data, reasoned arguments and logic is not an ingrained skill. For example, all of us need to understand that while personal attacks against opponents may have a place in character debates, they do not have a place in serious policy discussions.

We all need analytical skills to identify problems, suggest solutions, and to support suggestions by interweaving values with supporting data, and societal aspirations with realistic timetables and difficult trade-off choices.

Our democracy requires more than mere access to the “public square” for its citizens, although access is critical. People need to possess the ability to communicate their views and make their policy contributions without fear of retribution from those in power. They need to possess confidence that no matter how extreme or outlandish their contributions may seem, they will at least be heard.

On the flip side, they must recognize the right to be heard comes with a responsibility to be concise. Even in the public square, time is fleeting and attention spans short. We should not fear contentious debate or arguments for ideas we find repugnant. If we have educated our citizens to listen and assess our arguments then the power of ideas will rise or fall on their merits.

The legislative process offers skilled policymakers great opportunities for promoting the common good. When an issue of local, national, or international importance is brought – by the public, opinion leaders, the press or an external event – to the attention of lawmakers, ambitious and bright people begin to think about the issue and ask themselves questions. The debate in the public square is engaged, and in a democracy all should be prepared to engage.

We, however, have allowed the level of the debate to fall and left it to the province of the few. This needs to change – but how? We need to restore the art of informed discourse in our high schools as a start, and to demand informed, passionate but not personal debate in our elected officials and in pubic venues.

As an audience, we have a responsibility to go beyond mere listening or passive acceptance of arguments and recommendations that are not subject to rigorous debate and discussion. As an audience, we need to step up, stop ad-hominem attacks and demand more civility from our elected leaders. We must start to evaluate positions based on substantive arguments and data not rhetoric alone.

Finally, we need to go back and understand the basis of our duties as a citizen – to maintain our democracy and freedoms, we must be engaged citizens in the public square. An active public square is not filled with spectators, but with active, involved players.

Across the political spectrum, individuals and groups – inside and outside of government – undertake studies of issues which, once complete, are quoted by others in lobbying letters, internal memoranda, op-ed pieces, blogs and e-mails. Legislators and their aides then continue to process, and re-process, this information through a series of filters that include their career goals, the culture of the offices in which they work, their staffs and their perceptions of the nation’s best interests.

We need to sharpen our listening skills as these elements shape the debate. We must separate out rhetoric and substance and accept individual responsibility for what occurs in the public square. It is too important to leave this arena to elected leaders.

The better our legislators, and we the people, can engage in this process, the more meaningful and enriched the debate will be. The net result will not only be improved policy, but a clearer understanding of how it was developed and chosen and an informed citizenry.

Michael M. Hastings is director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at the University of Maine. John F. Mahon is a professor of management and dean of the College of Business Public Policy and Health at the University of Maine. E-mail [email protected] or [email protected]


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