Kelly is a senior governance fellow at Georgetown University's Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. Bland is a senior consultant at Stanford University's Center on International Conflict and Negotiation. Thompkins is CEO of the Justice and Peace Foundation, which works to combat poverty, war and racial injustice. Morrow is a lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster.
There comes a time when political leaders and ordinary citizens alike must choose to affirm and reinforce the institutions that make a democratic nation possible. The last four years have taught us that we cannot take for granted that our democratic processes will lead to compromise and reciprocity.
We are participants in an ongoing conversation about peace building among academics, community activists and international scholars who have studied intractable political conflicts and helped to develop strategies for overcoming political divisions. Our discussions have drawn heavily on our experiences in Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine and on our engagement in struggles to overcome racial injustice, wealth inequality and discriminatory policing here in the United States.
We believe the lessons we have learned offer important insights into how we could overcome the deep polarization poisoning American politics.
In our representative democracy, politics is a way of reconciling divergent interests. In this view, the core mechanisms of politics are debate and compromise. Today, these mechanisms are in serious need of repair. To restore viable democracy, we must first identify what makes political debate and compromise functional.
People live their political lives looking toward the future. Two ways of envisioning this future are important. They sound similar, but they are different: A shared vision of the future and a vision of a shared future.
The first? It implies broad agreement about how the future should unfold. It is the work of politics to define such a vision, including a consensus on how to bring it about. In the absence of a shared vision, the parties to a conflict may seek to impose the future they desire on their opponents. At this point, a vision of a shared future becomes important.
The second? Democracy does not demand that the citizens share a vision of the future. But democracy does demand that they commit themselves to a future that each would find bearable. This future must offer them security, dignity and the capacity to pursue the everyday goals virtually all of us have for ourselves and our families.
In other words, citizens have to commit to a vision of a shared future to have a democracy.
Such a vision recognizes that fundamental differences exist in what the parties seek and what they deem just. But each party also recognizes its vision must address the place of the other in that vision. If that place would be unbearable, political negotiations and citizen dialogue will be fruitless or even counterproductive.
Normal interest-based and value-based political compromise can take place, this means, only when both sides are sure that no political arrangement under consideration would afford them less than a bearable future. For democracy to function, citizens must feel that losing a political contest will not deny them the opportunity to live "normal" lives — to pursue their personal goals and dreams with some chance of success.
A deep sense of loss pervades our nation. Conservatives feel they are losing the heritage needed to build the future they want. Progressives feel they are losing the achievements of the past and also the momentum needed to build the more just and diverse future they want.
If political dialogue is to be constructive, progressives and conservatives must — first and foremost — acknowledge their respective senses of loss are legitimate and then address the fear that those Americans have of other Americans who hold opposing views.
Coming together to preserve American democracy starts with some common tasks. We must provide security for individuals, families and communities. We must safeguard livelihoods. And we must foster dignity and respect. Most politicians clearly understand the importance of these questions, but they treat them as by-products of the policies they advocate.
In the search for a shared future, We believe that these outcomes — especially the emphasis on dignity — should be paramount, intentional and visibly demonstrated.
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It is time for Americans to confront a fundamental question: Who, ultimately, controls the use of domestic force in our democracy?
Across the political spectrum, our nation has a long history of concerns about government overreach in the use of force against citizens. Recent events in Oregon, Wisconsin and elsewhere have again brought these concerns to broad public consciousness.
Yet most citizens normally pay little attention to the complex and contentious issues involving the use of force in our democracy. That leaves us ignorant and disempowered. We have relegated this vital matter to the politicians and the professionals at our peril. This lapse in our collective performance of our civic duty has become urgent. We must act now to refresh our collective memory and to reassert citizen control over the use of force by the government.
We're living in a highly polarized season. Members of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the associated effort to "defund the police," have concluded that an aspect of our current governing system has become so unjustified and destructive that it needs to be fundamentally altered if not abolished. At the same time, millions of other Americans support the more extreme rhetoric of the Trump administration — that it's time to invoke the rarely used Insurrection Act, written two centuries ago to permit presidents to deploy the military to suppress insurrection and rebellion, so the federal government can "dominate the battlespace" and "impose" control on "mobs" in order to pacify what they see as an anarchic threat to democracy.
Many of us feel a deep unease. Could one of today's aggressive, angry flashpoints become a conflagration? What can we do now to prevent escalation? How can we better ensure that the legitimate use of force by our government to prevent injury or wanton destruction doesn't become repression of legitimate protest?
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed just how fragile our public institutions may be. In order to prevent a terrible outcome, we must build resilience by educating ourselves about use of force and the law, and by making sure our voices are heard by those acting on our behalf. Resilience is the essence of prevention. It is the ability to make competent decisions in the midst of a crisis.
How can we pivot? Is it possible to transform what looks like confrontation, mayhem and confusion into a positive step forward for American democracy? Can we step back a minute and find a way to re-establish functional and effective citizen control over the use of force by our government, in our name? "We, the people" need to be the central players in this conversation about what's next.
The complex reality of force is that its use by our government is sometimes necessary — but sometimes illegitimate and destructive of the just aims of government. Protesters say the most emphatic forms of civil disobedience are required to put an agenda for justice in the public eye. Colin Kaepernick's peaceful kneeling protest, they point out, did not generate a national focus on policing practices. The massive and nationwide disruptive protests after George Floyd's death did.
Our concern, as citizens, is not with those who protest. It is with our collective understanding of, and influence on, the use of force by our government. Protestors speak for themselves and are responsible for their actions. But the use of force by the government — done on our behalf, in our name — is justified only when it preserves and enables the larger democratic rights of the citizenry as a whole.
Though our views of individual cases of government use of force and violence may be shaped by our political views and loyalties, our rules for the use of force cannot be partisan. We must actively engage in building a common understanding of the limits of angry protest and the limits of state violence against citizens. Civil disobedience cannot be allowed to overwhelm legitimate democratic processes, and government use of force cannot become repression of legitimate voices in a vigorous and loud debate.
Force, though sometimes necessary, does not "insure domestic tranquility" — one of the reasons for a national government identified in the Preamble of the Constitution. Only genuinely democratic governments can do that. Force is only justified to the degree that it enables peaceful dialogue and protest.
Continued polarization on this issue will diminish our democracy. We citizens must regain our common understanding and united voice on this vital topic. Traditionally, law enforcement has resisted civilian oversight, claiming that professionalization and bureaucratic accountability is sufficient. But this method has clearly failed us. To be sure, use of force is a citizen's problem and subject to citizen input and oversight.
This problem is alarming and overcoming it will be a significant challenge. Yet ignoring it will not make it go away. Citizens must engage. We can do so in various forums and formats, and we must include those who use force.
We call upon a wide range of community groups — protest movements, business associations, ROTC programs, civic organizations, high schools and colleges — to engage. And we call upon police departments, sheriffs offices and National Guard units to accept invitations, and practice the openness and accountability demanded by our democratic ideals.
These organizations must understand that accountability to citizens is not a threat. And that transparency serves them as well as the rule of law in a democracy. We call upon political leaders — mayors and governors, House members and senators — to use their power to convene meetings, study the topic and to lead this process starting at the local level. We, the people, must reassert our voice on this critical issue.
Failure to do so will weaken the most fundamental tenet of our democracy: That "we, the people," are the source of power and that in a democracy, the government only succeeds with our consent.
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