- Editor's Introduction
This double issue of The Good Society explores the democratic potential of two things that the democratic citizenry, at least here in the United States, increasingly mistrusts: their institutions and their fellow citizens. National, state, and local governments; schools, colleges, and universities; media platforms of all kinds; workplaces in the private, public, and independent sectors; all are viewed by growing numbers of Americans as creating or exacerbating rather than solving or mitigating the problems afflicting society. Meanwhile, growing numbers of Americans view those of differing views or values with suspicion, fear, and even hate.
Simultaneously, however, many Americans—in smaller but also growing numbers—are coming to realize an important fact about institutions: they are made up of people. And those people, like all people, can change. They can change in terms of the thinking and practices they bring to our institutions, and they can change in terms of the number and diversity of specific individuals who populate, inform, influence, and constrain our institutions—those who animate them and those who hold them to account.
In short, if American institutions are not working, it is up to the American people to improve them—and that means improving the way the American people work together, both inside and outside the institutions they care about. As this realization has spread, so has the determination of Americans to take up that work of collective self-improvement, not by [End Page iii] abandoning their institutions but by taking responsibility for them, and for one another. A major part of that work, as observers on various sides of multiple divides insist, is to rediscover the virtue of civility: to avoid language intended or likely to communicate suspicion, fear, and hatred toward others when discussing affairs of common concern. The heart of such work, however, goes beyond civility: it is to enlist courteous speech in the service of co-creative, collaborative action in pursuit of common goals and mutual benefit. That, after all, is the work that institutions of self-government are established to support. Here at The Good Society, we call such work and its fruits by the name of civic renewal.
You hold in your (virtual) hand evidence that such work is possible. Several people at multiple institutions collaborated to support our contributors' efforts to explore and explain, in rich and varied detail, how institutions can be sites of civic renewal, rather than symbols of democratic dysfunction. Prime among them, of course, are the contributors themselves, whose articles are introduced in the next section by two other essential partners, David Weerts and Dennis Ross. David, professor at the University of Minnesota and faculty director of Academic Planning and Programs, Office for Public Engagement, took on the bulk of the editorial work for this issue, which would never have been conceived had he not performed the prior and greater service of introducing me to Dennis. Almost immediately after that introduction Dennis, former Congressman from Florida and inaugural director of the American Center for Political Leadership at Southeastern University, set to work arranging support for a conference on SEU's beautiful Lakeland, Florida, campus—work advanced at every stage by SEU colleagues Ron Mahurin and Shelee Meeker. SEU was the perfect setting for our conference (especially given its mid-winter timing), and I want to thank Dr. Kent Ingle, president of SEU, for the hospitality he showed us over two days in Lakeland. Finally, I want to thank The Good Society's managing editor, Rebecca Shamash, for holding the whole project together (as always) with efficiency and grace (as always).
As this issue demonstrates, civic renewal takes many forms, and institutions—public, private, and otherwise—are critical to its flourishing. But the integrity and justice of institutions depends, at the last, on the integrity and wisdom of the people whose lives they are meant to organize. Courtesy can be a form of courage or a veil of cruelty. Anger and unsparing critique can sometimes catalyze and sometimes impede necessary change. Our best chance of knowing what to do when is to stay in relationship with one another: to seek out or, if need be, to create spaces—institutional or [End Page...