Tuning up the engine of democracy (5/13/2007)

Civic dialogue, the promotion of which is the goal of the newly minted City Club of Idaho Falls, is the engine of democracy.

It was true for this nation’s founders, who viewed collective decision-making as the cardinal principle of republicanism, and it remains true today.

There is much to be gained by genuine public engagement of important political and social issues.

Civil discourse, conducted in a civil tone and manner, promotes a rich political culture, one in which a community of citizens can participate in thoughtful discussion as a means of producing better government, better laws and policies, improved public understandings, consensus and a foundation for advancing criticisms, suggestions and reform.

There are tangible benefits to be gleaned from civil discourse. Expression of speech and participation in dialogue serve to empower citizens, cultivate civic satisfaction and enable individuals to reach their potential as human beings. We may bloom, so to speak, by exercising our freedoms of conscience, thought and speech.

Dialogue in the marketplace of ideas promotes knowledge, and it makes enlightened judgment possible. It instructs government and it checks government. It instills in us an appreciation for the principle of toleration, the necessity of dissent and criticism, and the value of peaceful resolution of disputes. It creates in the body politic a sense of place in our own society, a sense of ownership in the system. It breeds citizen-patriots, men and women who will defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights against governmental encroachment.

All too often, it seems, citizens talk past one another. We speak, but we do not listen. Issues slide by without serious analysis and debate.

As a polity, we tend to substitute labels for analysis. Arguments and ideas are scornfully dismissed because they are uttered by “conservatives” or “liberals.”

But reflexive and derisive dismissal, on grounds of ideology, is poison to our system; it reflects laziness and anti-intellectualism. Democracy requires rational thought, sober analysis and respectful consideration of the relative merits of an idea.

It requires, as well, an appreciation of dissent. A republic requires dissent. At a minimum, dissent has the healthy effect of challenging prevailing views and forcing advocates to sharpen and clarify their positions.

At best, dissent will expose governmental flaws, shortcomings and corruption, and advance superior means and ends. We recognize, of course, that there can be no dialogue without dissent.

The founders of this nation, perhaps the most notorious dissenters in our history, were sharp critics of government and its policies. They believed, as an article of faith, that the premise and promise of a better government, a better society and a better life, lay in civic dialogue.

So, too, do the founders of the City Club of Idaho Falls.

Adler is a professor of political science at Idaho State University, one of the founders of the City Club of Idaho Falls and co-author of “American Constitutional Law.” He is one of seven local columnists who appear on this page. You can write to him at this newspaper, P.O. Box 1800, Idaho Falls, ID 83403.