Humanities North Dakota held a virtual discussion and debate about Critical Issues Facing our Democracy with Dr. David Adler and Peter Wehner on Tuesday, November 9, 2021. Adler is the president of the Alturas Institute and writes the “We the People” column that appears on the Opinion page. Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a lifelong Republican and contributing opinion writer for the New York Times and the Atlantic magazine and has served in three Republican administrations. All opinions expressed are their own. Dr. Larry Skogen, president emeritus at Bismarck State College, moderated the debate. Skogen began with the primary question, “What is the critical issue facing our democracy?”

Adler singled out voter suppression as the major threat to our democracy. The right to vote is the cornerstone of American democracy. Some 20 legislatures over the past nine months or so have initiated or otherwise enacted laws that will make it extremely difficult for many Americans to vote.

Wehner felt it was the assault on truth. Without truth, a free society doesn’t really exist. We all interpret data based on the presuppositions we hold; that is nothing new. What is new is the effort to murder the idea of truth. The chief perpetrator, though not the only one, has been Donald Trump, who was and continues to be a great threat to American society. The assault on truth manifests itself in different ways. One example is the effort to overthrow the election, the so-called “stop the steal” campaign. People believe something that is a lie, that the 2020 election was stolen. This is shaking American democracy at its foundations.

Adler agreed and said the great problem posed to our country is the loss of agreement on facts and the continuing attack on reason and truth. He also agreed that the principal provocateur is likely Trump. Politicians from the federal, state, and local levels will continue to embrace this tactic of denying reason and truth due to Trump’s success at doing so. Adler fears for the future of our democracy when we cannot agree on what constitutes a fact, when we cannot agree that we need to pursue the truth.

Skogen prompted further, how did we get here, how did this happen?

Wehner said it is a complicated question and likely several things have happened. There has been an enormous loss of trust in authority figures and in our political system. An example of this is not deferring to leading epidemiologists in a health crisis. Social media is a driving factor, and it’s hard to overstate the import of social media getting people incensed, angry, and in a state of perpetual frustration. Wehner sees populism in both parties but particularly the Republican party. The founding fathers and Lincoln were very wary about the dangers of populism, which could lead to a kind of mob mentality. There used to be conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans which helped bridge the political divide, but people have begun to go into political tribes and show animosity and outright hatred toward people in the other party, thinking those people want to destroy the country.

Adler said democracy does not function well if we look at people with whom we disagree as the enemy. He pointed out that the assault on expertise, the denial of facts, and the attack on truth and reason reflect Trump’s assault on freedom of the press. In the past, it was generally agreed upon that we could get facts and accurate reporting from the nation’s leading newspapers and that provided a foundation for us to discuss public events and public policy. The attack on freedom of the press, viewing it as Trump said, “the enemy of the people,” has taken us to a very dark place in this country.

Wehner’s parents used to watch ABC, NBC, and CBS and the story selection was virtually the same. Later, as a conservative, he felt story selection had a liberal slant. If a person is liberal, you probably would not have noticed it. If you were more conservative, you would have sensed the different perspective. When Fox was founded in 1995, that version of Fox News was helpful. They gave a responsible, balanced view from a more conservative perspective. However, Wehner feels that Fox has jumped the rails and is probably one of the most dangerous institutions in American life. He feels Tucker Carlson perpetrates many of the things that he is talking about.

Skogen said that reminded him of the saying, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion but not to their facts.” When we watched Walter Cronkite, we knew we were getting the facts, but with Eric Sevareid, we knew he was giving his opinion.

Adler said one thing that would help provide some clarity to the public is for networks and other cable stations to present reporters as reporters, and pundits as pundits. When you blur the line, it becomes difficult for the public to know whether they are hearing a news report or the political slant of a reporter.

Skogen went on to discuss the lack of political center, that everybody seems to be out on the ends of the spectrum. Were there any comparisons from the 1850s to what we’re seeing going on right now?

Wehner and Adler disagreed on the underlying cause of the political unrest. While Adler feels the public policy issues are fueling the social and cultural unrest, Wehner felt it was basically the reverse, that the social and cultural unrest is fueling the divisiveness of the issues.

Wehner said the 1850s is an example a lot of people come up with. Right now, a majority of Trump supporters and a minority of Biden supporters want to succeed from the union. The nation is in a very acrimonious and perilous period, but there is no one issue dividing America today as there was pre-Civil War. If the unrest was due to public policy issues, you could work together and try to come up with potentially reasonable compromises. On the contentious immigration issue, the polling shows that there’s a lot of crossover between the two parties and you could come up with an Immigration bill that would please both sides. The pandemic volatility is not due to a disagreement on virology, epidemiology, or COVID-19. It was that that issue got caught up in this broader, ferocious debate in which people chose sides and not because they had studied the issues.

Adler felt there were significant public policy differences in our country that help to breed this kind of social and cultural unrest. The left is concerned about preventing voter suppression at the state level. We can’t have a successful democracy if there is a sweeping feeling that people of color and others are being left behind and denied voting rights, while others are simply interested in aggrandizing power for the sake of power to move their agenda along without expressing concern about basic democratic ideals, such as fairness, fair play, and voter integrity.

Wehner said every decade, every generation, and every president has had policy differences, including differences that were magnitudes larger than what we’re facing now. He did not think that the public policy differences are deeper or more intense now, but that the rancor, anger, and threat of political violence are more intense. Adler agreed that the rancor seems deeper. He thinks it has a lot to do with disappointment, a sense of disenfranchisement, a sense of being permanently left behind with the rise of globalization and automation, a lot of people losing their jobs, and the huge gap between haves and have nots. We need to find common ground and restore tolerance and basic human dignity.

Skogen wondered how we would get to the middle ground. Joe Biden was nominated because he was presenting the more centrist view, but how is that working?

Wehner said people look at our politics on the national stage and talk about how brutal and awful and rancorous it is, but these people didn’t come out of nowhere - they were elected by a lot of people. He agreed with Adler about the notion of tolerance and civility. It’s central to a Democratic Republic. It is more than good civic manners, it has to do with the notion of widening the aperture of our understanding, to put people in our life who see things somewhat different than we do.

Christian author C. S. Lewis referred to first and second friends. A first friend is a person who completes the other’s sentence, like raindrops coming together on a window. A second friend is the anti-self, the person who comes to a different conclusion when you both read the same book. The interesting thing is that Lewis and his second friend had disagreements yet treasured their friendship precisely because they saw things differently, precisely because they knew that together they were better having listened to one another and learned from one another. Lewis’s friend said, “When Lewis and I debated, we didn’t debate for victory, we debated for truth.” It’s an entirely different way of approaching it. Other people have something to teach us.

Adler agreed. What is missing in our system is leaders and people who are willing to speak to their constituencies, help them move beyond their own personal, selfish interests, and work toward a more general sense of what’s best for the nation. The concept of the general welfare, which was so important to James Madison and the founders, is lost. In The Federalist Papers, Madison said that while members of the House of Representatives are going to want to protect and promote the interests of their constituents, their job is to protect the national interests. We lack representatives of character and integrity who will put the necessary work for the nation ahead of their own self-interest in longevity.

Skogen said it would be wonderful to have a national leader stand up and do that. He thought that President Bush was one that could. Is it unfair to ask him to do that?

Wehner said Bush has spoken up more than you think. The best proof is Trump’s attacks on Bush. If you go back to a speech that Bush gave in 2017 in New York City, he identified three isms: nativism, protectionism, and isolationism. It was easy to see who he was talking about. Bush was one of the first people to congratulate Biden and to say the election was over. He spoke out on January 6th. He picked his shots. That he has done so in key moments makes his argument stronger rather than weaker.

In Wehner’s view, The Republican Party has been corrupted in many ways. It is Trump’s party from stem to stern. Those that have stood up to Trump are, or will be, ex-officeholders. Wehner admires them - Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Adam Kinzinger, and Liz Cheney. He admires Liz Cheney very much because she has been so forthright in her criticism. She’s done what you would want a responsible public figure to do. If there was a reward for speaking up for the truth, more people would do it.

Edmund Burke, a late 18th century member of Great Britain’s House of Commons, said that you elect somebody and defer to their best judgment, but they’re not there to reflect every passion. The founders were worried about those passions and that is the reason for the checks and balances, the reason we have the constitutional system we have. Both Wehner and Adler agreed with this perspective.

Adler said we need more Burkean representatives. It produces a much healthier system. At the end of the day, in a democracy, the American people must assume the responsibility for demanding a better system, more governmental adherence to constitutional and democratic principles. If we don’t, we have only ourselves to blame.

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