How has America changed in your lifetime?
Lee H. Hamilton is president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University. Hamilton represented Indiana’s 9th congressional district for 34 years beginning January 1965. He served as chairman and ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran, the Joint Economic Committee, and the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress. As a member of the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee Hamilton was a primary draftsman of several House ethics reforms.
Since leaving the House, Hamilton has served on several commissions including serving as Vice-Chair of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission), co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, the National Commission on the War Powers of the President and the Congress, and the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. He is currently a member of the FBI Director’s Advisory Board, the Defense Secretary’s National Security Study Group, and the US Department of Homeland Security Task Force on Preventing the Entry of Weapons of Mass Effect on American Soil.
I’m impressed with how big and how complicated this country is. When I graduated from high school, we had 130 million people in the country. Today I don’t know what the figure is, but I think I saw a few months ago that we now exceed 300 million. In other words in my working lifetime, the country has more than doubled in size; but much, much more than that, it has become extremely diverse as a country. And how you keep this country together – whether this nation as so conceived and so dedicated can long endure as Lincoln said at Gettysburg – that question was the operative question at Gettysburg. It’s still the operative question. Whether we can keep this country together, prosperous, peaceful, free is the challenge. And my passion, I guess, has always been to see how I can contribute to making the country work better.
I see a lot of things in American life and American society that disturb me. We have a marvelous country, and we’ve been given a marvelous heritage, terrific resources, great opportunities. And I don’t know of anyone who lives here who wants to live in another country. And I know millions of people who live elsewhere who would like to come here. So you begin with gratitude, I think, for what you have. But you also have to recognize our shortcomings. We have a political system today that’s not working very well. Just defeated an immigration bill. We cannot figure out how to give healthcare to everybody in this country. We have an education system that is deficient in so many ways that constantly come to our attention. The infrastructure of the country is crumbling in many, many respects. The institutions are not working as well as we would like them to work. So I think the challenges are immense. Now I don’t look at all of this and conclude it’s hopeless, or I’m a pessimist or anything of the sort; but I do have a real sense of the challenge. And neither am I a starry-eyed optimist. You see a lot of people who portray a kind of false optimism that is not based on fact, really, and the problems that we confront. So I just like the traditional, hardheaded, pragmatic, old-fashioned approach of Americans who see their country and their community as it is, and they want to make it better.
I don’t see how any American can be comfortable with our health care system today given the fact that so many of our citizens are not covered. Here we have the most marvelous medicine in the world if you can pay for it; but so many Americans do not. There’s a janitor who comes to my office and cleans it. And he’s a nice man. His teeth are falling out. I go to the dentist. I get a bill – $500, $1,000 for a routine checkup. I can pay that, fortunately, and I can pay it for my family. Here we are in the United States of America, the richest country in the world, and we can’t get good dental care for the janitor. I’m disturbed by those things.
Or take education today. I used to go to high schools and give speeches all the time. Politicians do. I’d look out over that high school group and we’d have interactions. My fractions might not be right here, but 50% of those kids I don’t need to worry about. They come from good homes. They go to their churches. They have good healthcare. They’re involved in their community. They may not all be A-students, but they’re doing well. Many of them are A-students, and we’re not going to screw those kids up. They’re going to make it, and they’re going to do well in life. What bothers me is that other half. Now there was a time when we were so good, and so strong, and so powerful as a country that we didn’t really need to worry too much about that other half. But that’s changing now, and we’ve gotta begin to bring them up. And that means the educational system has to be sharply improved. So I worry about these things and many, many others.
Who can possibly be comfortable or satisfied with the performance of the United States Congress today? I don’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. We cannot solve the immigration bill. They took up a bill – and it wasn’t a perfect bill for sure – rejected it. But we have a huge problem. We can’t solve it. And these other things we haven’t been able to solve. So I think we have a failure of political leadership in the country. And I don’t put that in the context of the George Bush presidency. I put it in the context of the last several decades. This system is not working as well as it should. And when I began this program, I said that my interest was in making the country work, and it still is. And I think the challenges ahead of us are immense. Recorded on: 7/5/07
Hamilton discusses the problems America faces as a bigger and more diverse place than the America he grew up in.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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