A Detente over History?

A Shared Sense of our Past, a Shared Vision of our Future This is a commentary on the need for a shared sense of American History, first posted on February 15, 2021 in Between Hell and High Water. The author, Michael Koetting, writes a regular column, Between Hell and High Water, and is an advisor…


What Does the Flag Stand For?

The Unthinkable Risk of Turning Our Backs on Inclusive American Values This is a commentary on the meaning of our national flag, first posted on July 4, 2021 in Between Hell and High Water. The author, Michael Koetting, writes a regular column, Between Hell and High Water, and is an advisor to Civic Way. Michael…


Earning Our Citizenship—Like an Immigrant

As Citizens, We Are Duty-Bound to Make Government Better Highlights: Citizens can choose among three pathways to reengage in civic life, revive their communities and improve their governments: 1) as civic activists, 2) as civic leaders and 3) as public officials Civic Activists – Every citizen can honor their civic duty by getting involved, and…


A Better America

The First Step Toward the Change We Need This is Civic Way’s commentary on the latest federal pandemic recovery debate. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US. Our earlier commentaries…


How America Ends

TitleHow America Ends
AuthorYoni Appelbaum, Senior Editor, The Atlantic

Will democracy survive our current factionalism?

  • Our democracy has long depended on faith that elections are “neither permanent nor intolerable,” that losing one election is mere prelude to next election
  • Democracy is at risk when either party loses faith in their ability to win next election
As Is Situation:
  • Increasingly shrill, apocalyptic political rhetoric stokes fears & validates tribalism
  • Thoughtless tweeting & digital demonization fuels greater political acrimony
  • Increasingly divided political camps (geographically & ideologically)
  • Declining trust in civic institutions, democracy & each other
  • Waning ability of center to absorb extreme ideological movements & impulses
  • Despite recent successes (e.g., Electoral College, Supreme Court & Senate), many GOP leaders fear dramatic demographic changes will end GOP dominance
  • Narrowing GOP base could irrevocably damage two-party system & democracy
Historical trends:
  • US history replete with examples of political over-reaching & worse, e.g.:
    • Federalists passed Alien & Sedition Acts, criminalizing criticism of administration
    • As Northern states abandoned slavery & outgrew South, Southern states lost faith in elections, became more strident & used federal laws to support slavery (e.g., 1850 Fugitive Slave Act)
    • “Redemption era” Democrats stole franchise from black voters
    • Progressive Republicans wrested municipal governance from immigrant voters
    • Reaction to World War I immigrants led to many regrettable events (e.g., Prohibition, Palmer Raids, Ku Klux Klan revival & nativist immigration laws)
  • Democracy ultimately prevailed as electoral losers realized they could build new coalitions & regain their influence in future elections, e.g.:
    • Political parties have continually realigned to accommodate immigrants (e.g., In 1924, Democratic Party nearly destroyed by fight between nativist & anti-nativist forces, but, after losing in 1928, won next 5 national elections with broad ethnic coalition)
    • While immigrants have influenced US culture, most have embraced core American values (e.g., entrepreneurialism & egalitarianism) & become more American
  • Today’s GOP seems to have lost its faith in democracy & immigration:
    • After Romney’s 2012 loss, RNC recommended expanding base to include minorities, women & youth & rebuilding party into organization that could win national majority
    • In 2016 primary, GOP voters abandoned GOP establishment’s calls for inclusion for candidate with disdain for public service, democracy & diversity
    • Instead of expanding base, GOP turning against democratic processes, challenging legitimacy of elections & using other tactics to hold power focusing on suppressing voters (e.g., extreme gerrymandering, polling place cuts, voter suppression & immigrant census count suppression)
Future issues:
  • Demographic – cultural strains from ascendancy of historical political minority
  • Economic – economic stress from global competition & postindustrial economy
  • Informational – growing reliance on smart phones, social media & misinformation
  • Political – waning hope of either political party for future elections increases vulnerability of democratic systems to reckless self-serving demagogues
Next steps:
  • Center-right leaders start rejecting nativism, broadening partisan coalitions & competing more aggressively for new voters in diversifying nation
  • Conservative thought leaders rebuild GOP as party of conservative principles, develop more appealing ideas for diverse constituencies & mount good faith, fact-based challenge to progressivism in free marketplace of ideas
  • GOP must renew its commitment to vibrant democratic institutions & competitive elections, learn to gracefully accept electoral defeats & restore its faith that democratic elections offer a viable, short-term path to victory
Our Take:

Our two-party system is messy, but it has shown a remarkable ability throughout our history to adapt to change. Continually competing for majority support, our parties have assimilated movements, built and rebuilt coalitions and tailored their platforms to those ever-changing coalitions. And they have absorbed and even quashed the assaults of Nativists, Luddites and Know-Nothings and other extremists.

At first glance, the author appears to suggest that it is solely up to the GOP (or center-right) to reform itself and save our nation, a notion that seems simplistic if not unfair. However, after watching the recent impeachment trial in the US Senate, the author’s fears about the GOP seem all too prescient. With the solitary exception of Mitt Romney, GOP Senators appeared almost eager to cast aside long-held conservative principles (starting with public accountability). To many observers, they seemed less a party than a cult slavishly devoted to their “supreme leader.”

Our history gives us hope that American system will prevail, but success will not be attained solely because of the work of one party or the consequences of one election. For our democracy to prosper, we must do more than hope that one party will put the country first. Sure, both parties could benefit from serious reform, but we also must take other steps. We must engage more citizens, reduce the influence of money in politics, improve civic education, make our elections competitive and improve governance. And we must ground these actions in our founding constitutional principles.

The Enemy Within

TitleThe Enemy Within, Atlantic, December 2019
AuthorJames Mattis, retired United States Marine Corps general & former Secretary of Defense

Have we taught our children the principles of citizenship or already forgotten them?

  • In 1838, Abraham Lincoln warned that our nation’ greatest threat came from within, that while our external enemies would not defeat us, we could still “die by suicide”
  • Our politics are paralyzing us; we doubt instead of trust, dismiss instead of listen, demonize instead of compromise & stress differences instead of commonalities
  • E pluribus unum is not just a phrase on our coins, it is a moral imperative, a noble expression of our duty to build a “more perfect” union for future generations
Historical context
  • Our founders designed a constitutional system durable & flexible enough to build on our strengths & fix our flaws (e.g., 13th & 19th Amendments), a historic achievement
  • Our founders understood that we humans are imperfect & that our success as a nation would depend on our humility, realism & collective capacity to solve civic problems
  • America remains an experiment, a never-ending commitment to perfecting our union that demands our ceaseless attention, patience & patriotism
  • Every citizen’s responsibility is to work with others to fix our constitutional system when it falters, not discard it for empty slogans or vague promises
As Is Situation
  • Cynicism, while momentarily gratifying, is a cowardly & corrosive trait that fosters distrust, resentment & suspicion; ultimately, it solves nothing
  • Dissenting views are inevitable & useful, but mean, scornful rhetoric is not
  • Per recent Pew survey, 2/3 of Americans believe that our declining trust in government & one another hampers our ability to solve our nation’s problems
  • Our institutions (e.g., media, judiciary, labor unions, universities, teachers, scientists & civil servants) are easy targets, but attacking or neglecting them impedes our ability to solve problems & improve society
  • Short-term thinking often succumbs to selfish, shortsighted temptations (e.g., leaving burdensome debt or eroding environmental conditions for our descendants)
  • Today’s tribal warfare & political paralysis have created a national crisis, with a mounting backlog of neglected problems, one that demands a sober, unified response
Civic leadership
  • Real democratic leadership is patient, quiet, diplomatic & collegial
  • Real leaders don’t arrive on white horses with grand promises to cure every ill
  • Leading is serving, always seeking & drawing inspiration from those we lead
  • Per Dwight Eisenhower, leadership is “the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it”
  • Civic institutions may suffer from low favorability ratings, but they remain our best vehicles for reaffirming & transmitting our values over time
Civic action
  • Progressing nationally means participating locally
  • One of our most vital challenges is declining civic participation & faith in government, but only we can solve it by increasing our participation
  • Overcoming challenges is usually done one base hit at a time, not by swinging for fences
  • Civic participation often inspires change from ground up (e.g., Rosa Parks’ bus ride & local environmental clean-up efforts)
  • America is more about our pews (e.g., communities, local governments & civic institutions) than our pulpits (White House, Congress & media)
  • Impetus for long-term change often comes from pews, not bully pulpit
Next Steps
  • Strengthen civility – listen to others, ask questions in ways that enlist opponents & frame challenges as solvable problems not as irreconcilable differences
  • Take long view – set strategic goals & debate problems & solutions against long-term ideals (e.g., stewardship & intergenerational fairness)
  • Honor incremental change – reward small, gradual improvements (e.g., public schools, infrastructure, electrification & nuclear-arms control)
  • Recognize our commonalities – value what Lincoln called our “bonds of affection” (e.g., shared traditions, freedoms, generosity, warmth, humor & service to others)
  • Remember our collective power – renew our ability to come together at moments of crisis (Pearl Harbor & 9/11) & turn adversity into a crucible for progress
  • Strengthen civic institutions – invest more in the civic institutions we need to remain a vibrant democracy & beacon to the world (e.g., schools, universities & governments)
  • Improve civic education – upgrade curricula & instructional materials to ensure our students understand our civic principles, ideals, aspirations & responsibilities
Our Take

Mattis warns that our constitutional system, as robust as it is, cannot long endure our current tribalism & paralysis. He urges more personal humility, respect, compromise & collaboration. He counsels more support for our civic institutions & leaders who are diplomatic, collegial & patient. He implores us to substitute long-range ideals for short-term gratification. Finally, he calls for a renewed commitment by each of us to become better, more informed citizens, actively engaged in tackling the growing backlog of civic problems & perfecting our union for future generations. Mattis does not address the costs of civic education, but Civic Way believes that the best investment we could possibly make in democracy would be in a more thorough, robust K-12 civic education.

Our View of Democracy & Personal Responsibility

Introduction Some of us complain incessantly about our politics and politicians. Others dodge any discussion of politics whatsoever. As a society, we have become less and less adept at rising above our political biases, listening to divergent views and reaching consensus. Worse yet, we seem to be losing faith, not only in our civic institutions…


Our Day of Reckoning

TitleOur Day of Reckoning
AuthorCamille Busette, Director of the Brookings Race, Prosperity, and Inclusion Initiative

Since 1968, has America made progress as a land of opportunity?


Our future competitiveness will depend on people of color, but the American Dream remains out of reach for too many. Regardless of the source—the Census Bureau, Federal Reserve or Annie E. Casey Foundation—or the metric, the facts are clear. People of color face the longest odds for success in the land of opportunity. And, despite post-Great Recession gains, our vast racial wealth gap remains. Even more worrisome, current federal policies could exacerbate inequality, limit economic mobility and undermine our global competitiveness.

As is

Despite profound demographic changes (e.g., for the first time, most children under age 10 are non-white), our nation seems sharply divided between white and non-white, natives and immigrants, haves and have-nots, insiders and outsiders. For many people of color, the nation offers the threat of insecurity and despair. After eight years of our first African-American president and a national vision of hope, we have handed the keys of national power to the forces of anger, intolerance and greed.

To Do

To ensure our optimal economic performance and our global competitiveness, our nation must afford its young ample educational options and its adults every opportunity to fully participate in our ever-changing economy.

Our Take

As the author reminds us, Dr. Martin Luther King called on us to recognize our common humanity. To honor our legacy, realize our hopes and inspire the next generation of leaders, we must become—and fight to remain—the land of opportunity.

The Power of Civic Engagement

Title Description Our op-ed pages carry the cries for action—populism, centrism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism and all manner of hybrid isms. Go left. Go right. Double down on the center. Each expert makes his or her case with varying degrees of persuasiveness, but most miss a fundamental point about America. We are not and have never…


Civic Progress Views

  Title Description As Americans watch the 2018 Winter Olympics, we can count our blessings, and with good reason. Our ancestors have built—and given their lives to preserve—a land of freedom and affluence. With self-assurance, teamwork and timely investments, those who preceded us built a society to be envied. Each generation brought new energy and…