I’m flying back from San Francisco, on a nonstop flight to Washington Reagan. Thanks to United’s WiFi I’m working throughout the flight. And I’m also reading Emmett McGroarty, who asks whether civil public discourse is presently possible:
Over the last 20 years, public discourse has tended toward the shrill and irrational, punctuated with occasional violence. No sharing of opinions. Don’t ask questions. No discussion of points of view. Empathy is dead. Socialization—an essential human activity—is regulated by the mob, and its walls are shrinking.
Does the form or practice of our government have anything to do with this dystopia?
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville made a few observations worth mulling.
The structure of our government, he noted, preserved the power of the townships, most notably in New England but everywhere resting on the “same idea.” It preserved the natural order. Man, Tocqueville declared, “makes kingdoms and creates republics; the township appears to issue directly from the hands of God.”
“It is in the township, at the center of ordinary relations in life, that desires for esteem, the need of real interests, the taste for power and for attention, come to be concentrated; these passions, which so often trouble society, change character when they can be expressed so near the domestic hearth and in a way in the bosom of the family.” It is through local governance that the individual “gets a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and finally assembles clear and practical ideas on the nature of his duties as well as the extent of his rights.”
“Local freedoms, which make many citizens put value on the affection of their neighbors and those close to them, therefore constantly bring men closer to one another, despite the instincts that separate them, and force them to aid each other.”
As the Catechism observes, participation in civic life “develops the qualities of the person . . . and helps guarantee his rights” (par. 1882). This subsidiarity—embracing socialization—leads to solidarity.
Given a century of increased centralization—taking more and more power away from local communities, should discord and rancor in the public square and on college campuses be such a surprise?