The Program for Public Discourse denounces President Trump’s negligent and incendiary rhetoric that precipitated the violent attack on the Capitol January 6, 2021.
As an academic organization, we deliberately refrain from endorsing candidates or offering partisan political commentary. Instead, we strive to elevate public discourse by investigating and modeling robust deliberative practices irrespective of the positions endorsed in the process.
Over the past several weeks, however, it has grown impossible to propagate democratic principles of public deliberation without simultaneously admonishing the president’s anti-democratic rhetoric.
President Trump, along with some of his allies, and abetted by a variety of news outlets, has persistently poisoned the public square by spreading unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud and insisting upon a “stolen” election. Trump cajoled and threatened public officials to support his abrogation of our constitutional, democratic process. When those attempts failed, he called upon his supporters to take matters into their own hands. His actions resulted in the deaths of at least five people, including a police officer, and delivered a serious blow to American democracy.
Pundits and scholars will undoubtedly take away several lessons from last week’s events. With an eye toward public discourse, however, two immediate and admittedly pithy lessons remain clear. First, we are reminded that words matter. Speech does not merely represent someone’s thoughts; it also weaves the social fabric of our democracy. Speech can instigate hope and fear. It can mobilize collective action for better or worse. Speech can inspire thoughtful citizenship or pander to the darkest corners of our humanity. In other words, ideas have consequences. Likewise, freedom of speech demands democratic responsibility.
The power of speech points to our second lesson—democracy is fragile. Democracy is predicated upon public trust, and that trust is threatened when democratic norms are cast aside in the name of power. Democracy requires respect for the truth and good will toward one’s fellow citizens—whether they agree with you or not. For democracy to thrive, we must cultivate it as an end in itself. We can only achieve that end by recognizing the power of our speech and the humanity of our fellow citizens. It requires us to hold ourselves and our leaders to a higher standard and speak truth to power when they fall short. Political leaders are just as much a reflection of our public discourse as they are its agents.
For our part, we are currently developing pedagogical tools and programming centered on the theme of Democratic Deliberation. Specifically, we are interested in helping students A) better effectively discern among competing messages, especially those circulating across social media; B) identify and address warning signs of violence and extremism embedded in public discourse; and C) debate productively with political opponents. We recognize that these strategies are far from panaceas to our complex challenges, but we also believe such modest efforts are essential to realizing our democratic potential.
Read the Program for Public Discourse’s Policy on Public Statements.