… a democracy that embraces difference of
opinion as a strength to celebrate, not an obstacle to overcome
Democratic societies function properly for the common good if strong geographic communities exist within that society – where a robust social fabric bonds diverse citizens, where crosscutting relationships thrive and result in high levels of civic trust, and where human beings routinely stay highly engaged over the inevitable disagreements that arise. It is by nurturing these relationships – exercising a civic “muscle” despite disagreement – that people develop empathy for others, then strive to reciprocate kindnesses, leading to the best behavior of man toward our fellow man. It is ultimately only through these relationships that opinions shift, consensus is reached, good decisions are made, and problems are solved.
From his travels to America in the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville learned something that many people fighting hyper-partisanship in our day sometimes fail to appreciate — that this very robust civil society is integral to a healthy democracy.
As Tocqueville observed, “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations.” And these associations, to his mind, weren’t merely engines for solving social problems; they were catalysts for building the social glue that bonds people together and makes it possible for (the inherently-fragile concept of) democracy to work. Tocqueville also understood that geographical communities are the basic unit of American democracy, and the foundational construct on which the health of all other democratic institutions rest. It’s in our hometowns where civil society is built – or destroyed – daily, simply as we lead our lives.
We believe the vitriol and divisive speech so common in our public life today is a by-product of the demise of civil society, of the voluntary nonpartisan community-based associations that once captured Toqueville’s imagination. Thus, as the Village Square seeks to raise discourse in our community (and in our wider nation), we are mindful of the fact that civil discourse does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. It is invariably affected by the (good or bad) health of the civil society around it. We, then, see our work as ultimately broader in some ways than it might appear at first.
“In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America 1835
The Village Square is in the business of raising the quality of civil discourse; but in many ways our work is ultimately about raising the quality of civil society, about strengthening the community we call home. The two typically move in tandem either in a “vicious cycle” (in which vitriolic public pronouncements fracture civic trust and cripple the ability of voluntary associations to build goodwill across diverse populations) or in a “virtuous cycle” (in which constructive civil discourse leads to greater empathy for others and a desire to see one-time strangers become neighbors and friends).
The inter-connectedness of civil discourse and civil society makes our work more challenging when both are trending in a negative direction, but potentially more promising when civil discourse and civil society are both trending in a positive direction. In fact, we believe that when you intervene at the correct inflection point – as we believe we are – the resulting increase in civic connectedness begins to accelerate impact and creates a tipping point where our influence becomes exponential rather than arithmetic. We believe in these tipping points, we have felt them happen in our own community – impacting even people who have never been to the Village Square yet still identify and align themselves with our high-minded civic and political goals.