Democracy literally means rule by the people. Yet in practice, democracy means that the important decisions within a society are made through public discussions, often among elected representatives. To play a productive role in political discussions, you need a set of skills that do not come naturally, which is why they have traditionally been taught in school. Unfortunately, our public schools in the United States are failing to teach these skills. Many people want to blame the students, the parents, or the teachers for this failure. Yet as I explain in Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free, the public schools have been set up for failure, by policies made at a high level.
Some people tell me that we have a cultural divide in the United States and that the ugliness of our political discussions results from a failure of the people on the two sides to communicate. In other words, “what we have here is a failure to communicate”:
Some people think that discussions of political issues are inevitably ugly. I disagree. I think that political discussions can be enlightening and enjoyable. Political discussions get ugly when people start using ugly debating tactics. They often use ugly tactics out of frustration when their efforts to persuade other people don’t work.
Photo by classic film scans