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“American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies. . . . The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization. And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies. When American democracy has worked, it has relied upon two norms that we often take for granted—mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. (Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die.)

A major sign that our democracy is in trouble is the debasement of political discourse in this country. There is a paucity of good public discourse in the United States. People talk past each other or shout at each other — people don’t listen to each other and people don’t civilly respond to each other.

Often those who disagree with our position are seen as evil or treacherous, which accounts for much of the viciousness of our public discourse. Often our positions are the outgrowth of ignorance or letting one source determine our political beliefs for us. We find it easier to attack the person than the argument. We never question our assumptions. There is a failure to give good reasons for positions. Private reasons based on the feelings or faith of the proponents is advanced. Today, too many come to debate with fixed positions based on a set of absolute, fundamental principles of right or wrong that they accept as certain truth. The truth of a position is assumed not tested through public discourse. We avoid any sources of information that might question our assumptions.

A fundamental perspective and value of our democracy is that what constitutes sound public policy is discovered during the process of public debate and deliberation. Underlying this contingent view of political truth is the idea that I might be wrong or that my thinking might be incomplete and that, through public debate, we can collectively discover the best way of approaching public problems.

For this public debate and discussion to work, there must be tolerance of opposing views, a willingness to listen to the opposition, critical examination of our own views as well as those of others and respect for all discussants. “Good Citizenship is a habit of dealing with one’s fellow citizens. It is the habit of giving one’s best thoughts and efforts for the general welfare but at the same time being willing to consider the thoughts and efforts of others, and, if need be, compromising with or submitting to the thoughts and efforts of the majority of one’s fellow citizens.” (Jones, Parliamentary Procedure at a Glance.)

For democratic discourse to work, citizens must be persuadable, i.e. open to new arguments and evidence and willing to change their minds if presented with compelling arguments on the other side. For deliberation to function properly, we must be able to admit that we don’t have all the answers.

For example, minority rights rest on tolerance of diversity and diverging views. If political truth is absolute, why grant those who do not agree any rights at all, they are in error and error has no rights. Political deliberation assumes contingency not absoluteness. 

Fact-based public discourse induces reflection, participants are persuadable by good reasons, participants are willing to engage each other, force or coercion is not permitted, the deliberative process is open to all participants, and the people listen to each other. The problem with public discourse today is that the dogmatic perspective has triumphed over the democratic decision making perspective.

We need to step back, take a collective breath, listen to others civilly, weigh what all have to say and be willing to humbly admit that we may be wrong and are willing to change our minds. If we don’t, our democracy is truly in peril.

Dr. John W. Ray is a professor of political science and political philosophy at Montana Tech in Butte. He has published extensively on the topics of democratic deliberation and public debate and argumentation. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Montana Tech.

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