Program

The Right to Dissent is Crucial to American Democracy

Key Concerns of Young Voters Highlighted

Oct 16, 2008

What is the meaning of "American democracy?" What are the core values that underlie the American society and polity? These questions were addressed Tuesday during the first in a discussion series, underwritten by the Taube Philanthropies and organized by the Division of United States Studies, devoted to American democracy and values.

Dr. Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami, suggested in her keynote address that the core values underlying American democracy reflect a philosophy of rights: the rights to religion, assembly, petition, press, and equality. Her emphasis, however, was on what she viewed as the key value: the importance of individual thought and the right to dissent.

Shalala traced dissent as it has been exercised throughout American history to the benefit of the American democracy and society. Citing George Mason, Alexis de Tocqueville, Langston Hughes, Margaret Chase Smith, and the eight senators profiled in John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, Shalala commented that Kennedy's book was "short and spare" because legislators belong to "an institution more apt to compromise" than to value dissent.

Dissent, however, has served the United States well and has frequently evolved into orthodox wisdom in later years. Senator Chase Smith, for example, spoke out against McCarthyism in 1950 before almost any other public figure did so, warning that the rights to think independently and hold unpopular beliefs were in danger. She did so as Senator Joseph McCarthy began his campaign of attacking dissenters whom he accused of Communist sympathies. Shalala in effect updated Kennedy's volume by praising Senator Russell Feingold, the only senator to vote in 2001 against the USA PATRIOT Act. Perhaps, she hypothesized, "terrorism" has become the new "communism."

Shalala, who also has served as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, expressed both concern about American constitutional democracy in the years since 9/11 and faith in the activism of young people today.

"As a university president I have reason to hope for our democracy recovering its vitality," she stated. She cited the sharp increase in the youth voter turnout in recent primaries and elections and young people's interest in accessing political information through the Internet and text messages. The economy, the Iraq War, education, health care and global warming are key issues for eligible voters between the ages of 18 to 29. Their involvement is important, Shalala said, because "democracy, like a garden, needs fresh infusions to stay vibrant." While democracy requires "great and courageous individuals, in the end it is a collective act." For this country, it is an act built on a solid foundation of rights.

A history of activism

Democracy also requires constant work and sacrifice, said Moses Boyd, principal of Integrated Solutions Group of the Washington Group. Arguing against the assumption that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution guarantee American liberty, Boyd, a former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar, noted that today's freedom rests on a history of activism and social movements: by African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities, women, labor unions, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, and so on. The questions today are how the country can retain the civic engagement of young people caught up in the current election campaign, protect freedom of the press, and reform the educational system so that it conveys basic American values.

Peter Levine, Director of The Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), listed the pedagogical mechanisms that have proved successful in conveying American values to young people: teaching American history and government, discussing current events, mandating community service that is connected to academic studies, encouraging extra-curricular activities such as student governments and school newspapers, giving students a voice in running their schools, and organizing simulations of such phenomena as trials. Unfortunately, he said, those options are provided differently both among and within schools, with their being made available disproportionately to students who are headed to selective colleges and universities. More students must in fact be prepared for college as a step toward becoming active citizens, he argued, as only one out of 14 people with no college experience voted in recent primaries – but the rate for those people with college experience was one out of four.

The panelists agreed that today's young people have fewer expectations than do their parents of government acting in ways that will benefit them. The unanswered question is what that will do to their participation in civic life and in their adherence to and perpetuation of basic American values.