Just about everybody these days agrees that our country and democracy are not better off than 50 years ago. In a Jan. 7 commentary, “Blame it on ’68,” one of the co-authors of the article you’re now reading, Stephen B. Young, attributed the decline of democracy in America to a generation of baby boomers who refused to conform, rejected personal responsibility, and had no sense of duty to family or country. Thinking Mr. Young wrong, the other current co-author, Andy Dawkins, wrote to him, attributing democracy’s decline to the ascendancy of corporate domination of the political process.
This led to a conversation over coffee, where, after hearing about each other’s different vantage points to 1968 — Young was the son of the U.S. ambassador to Thailand and Dawkins was a protester at the 1968 Democratic National Convention — they found, first, humility in admitting each had things to learn from the other, and then some common ground, with Young agreeing that the reign of wealthy America over our democracy needs to be checked and Dawkins agreeing that values are tremendously important to a democracy. Together, they wrote this article urging an end to the blame game and suggesting a common path forward.
Readers can find Young’s original article and Dawkins’ initial response at tinyurl.com/blame68-and-response.
Some 50 years have passed since 1968, one of the most tumultuous and wrenching in American history. The Tet Offensive, the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, riots in American cities, the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and much more seemed, for a while, to portend some revolutionary change in the country’s basic system.
Ultimately, these events did not portend such a violent change. What they did portend, and did mark, was the beginning of a steep decline in our collective faith in the American experiment. For all the patriotic ballyhoo peddled by political campaigns and commercial enterprises, the American people have experienced a steady erosion in their experience of the fairness, openness and opportunity of American culture. And that, in turn, has led to a steady erosion in our collective faith in American democracy.
What is to be done? Today the air is filled with accusations and ideological conflict, but what is needed now is not the zero-sum triumph of one political party over another. We need a movement, one that, like the civil rights movement, transcends divisive issues of partisanship, economic status, race, regionalism and all the other causes we like to blame for our problems. We need a movement that does not look to politicians for leadership, that unites rather than divides, that lifts us past today’s despair and leads us into tomorrow’s hope and progress. We need a movement toward a renewed democracy.
Where to begin? Obviously, not with the left and the right — the social democrats and the neoconservative capitalists blaming the other. No. It must begin with the one essential feature without which no democratic system can survive. It must begin by embracing that each of us — with few exceptions — wants what is best for America no matter how much we may differ on individual points of policy and culture.
To renew democracy, we must first restore our faith in ourselves. In this time of so much “fake news,” with so many Americans hearing the news differently and with so much hostility to the political process, valuing a conversation with a degree of trust, some humility and a search for truth becomes paramount. In a commentary in the New York Times (“How Lies Spread Online,” March 8), Sinan Aral of the MIT Sloan School of Management put it this way: “Some notion of truth is central to the proper functioning of nearly every realm of human endeavor. If we allow the world to be consumed by falsity, we are inviting catastrophe.”
The kind of leadership we are imagining is not likely to come from our current set of politicians — not as long as they play the zero-sum game “if I win, you lose,” and not as long as polarization and demonizing the opposition is a proven path to victory. Rather, ordinary folks need to believe that once again, working together for the common good, we can make the world a better place. We are calling on every citizen to take individual responsibility, to make an effort to build a personal skill set of values honoring truth, humility and trust, to come together and start the movement to restore our democracy.
There are many steps we need to take, but we would like to make some concrete suggestions that encompass a wide range of factors.
1) Educators, from grade school through college, need to teach the importance of truth in a democracy, how to search for the truth, how to look at sources. The fact that you read something doesn’t make it true.
2) Business schools need to do a better job of teaching metrics (especially as to intangibles) and enlightened self-interest. Our widely accepted sense of purpose for business is simple: Make a profit. Therefore, the basic metrics used to track success are simplistic accounting conventions revolving around the profit-and-loss statement. Stock prices and asset values are only multiples of net short-term gains or losses.
And, these days, the most important business assets — reputation, customer loyalty, human capital, quality of leadership — don’t show up on a firm’s balance sheets. We need to modernize our accounting conventions.
Furthermore, enlightened self-interest holds that we optimize our private goods by planning for the long term and taking good care of our stakeholders, including the environment and society. Thus, we need to rethink our key performance indicators in order to become more profitable in the long run.
3) We need to search for ways to redevelop community, or “mediated forums,” to converse with one another. The quality of democracy turns on its social capital. Social capital is interpersonal. It creates trust and drives away misunderstandings. Social capital is built when we engage face to face and heart to heart as we do in churches, synagogues and mosques, in Rotary clubs and bowling leagues, and in conversations during lunches and over drinks. It arises when we read great books and good poetry. It doesn’t happen if we only go bowling alone or only relate to the world through social media.
And we need to reform our current institutions that encourage polarization:
4) By considering how we hold elections, tackling campaign-finance reform, ending partisan gerrymandering and trying new ideas like ranked-choice voting.
5) By discussing the role that media play in all this, especially social media. Consider the media as a public utility, as does legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar called the “Honest Ads Act.” The “Fairness Doctrine” could be brought back.
6) An enlightened self-interest on behalf of the business community should spring forth in an all-out effort in the self-preservation of democracy. Valuing profits over the truth is political nihilism. As Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian wrote in a letter to Delta employees (after the Georgia legislature took away a tax break because Delta broke from the NRA): “Our values are not for sale.” The captains of business and industry need to join the chorus calling for campaign-finance reform. Corporate America needs to find the humility that we found in writing this article.
In his New York Times commentary, Aral explains how false stories on Twitter or YouTube algorithmically and exponentially spread significantly faster and further than the truth does, because they are more provocative, more incendiary; social-media corporations exploit this natural human tendency to increase advertising sales. Aral also suggests that labeling news stories, much the way we label food, could change the way people consume and share it.
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These are merely half a dozen groupings of suggestions, ideas and conversation points. There are, we are sure, literally dozens more waiting to be unearthed, discussed, modified and applied. America’s business community needs to take some leadership in preserving America’s democracy. A growing middle class, not a shrinking one, is essential. Maximizing profits and shareholder value has far overshadowed the old ideal that companies are responsible for the well-being of workers, customers and communities. The flow of corporate money into politics has to be restrained. Control of candidacies, platforms, our very democracy must be wrested from the control of big money. Together, all Americans need to work to restore our shared commitment to democratic values and norms to regain confidence in our government and find aspiration as a nation once again, as opposed to appeasing narrow constituencies.
What we need, in short, is a nonpartisan, universal, always evolving Movement Toward a Renewed Democracy. One that our children and grandchildren and their children, too, can point at and say: “That’s what it means to be an American.”
Andy Dawkins represented a Midway St. Paul district in the Minnesota House, won DFL endorsement for mayor and headed the housing enforcement unit for the city of St. Paul. Stephen B. Young is a former head of the Hamline Law School, a former GOP Senate candidate and is now the global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an organization dedicated to promoting ethical capitalism.