- Guest Editors' Introduction
We write this introduction as the world has changed in ways that few could have imagined less than ten months ago. Chief among them, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested our nation and the broader global community in immense ways. It has forced us to confront the vulnerabilities of systems that sustain our public health, the price and trade-offs associated with economic well-being, and the way that we care for our family, friends, and neighbors. Adding to this ongoing crisis, civil unrest has shaken the nation as both peaceful protests and destructive riots have swept across American cities in light of the death of George Floyd, a black man who died during an arrest by Minneapolis police. This tragic event—along with others with similar storylines—have forced the nation to grapple with complex questions related to policing, justice, dignity of human life, and the meaning of law and order.
Adding to this complexity, the disparate interpretations of these events have assumed the forefront of American politics during a presidential election year. Post-election, concerns persist about "vote-by-mail fraud" on one hand, and the "peaceful transition of power" on the other. Decades from now, what will historians say about this fragile period in our nation's history? Did our nation come together to heal our differences and move forward, or did ideological divisions lead to further unraveling resulting in unthinkable consequences? [End Page vi]
Only a few months prior to the onset of this chain of events, the American Center for Political Leadership at Southeastern University convened a Citizen–Scholars' Symposium to address fundamental questions about our democracy. The Symposium, held January 8 to 10 in Lakeland, Florida, was predicated on the idea that civil discourse is the gateway to entering into the most complex task of democracy: confronting and doggedly working through deep differences in pursuit of shared goals, workable compromises, and the long-term common good of the nation. In framing this event, Symposium collaborators concluded that "civility" as an end in itself is insufficient and even contested: a tool that can open doors to understanding and cooperation, but can also close them on topics discomfiting to those in, or seeking, control. Thus, we focused on "civic renewal" as the larger goal that must be promoted and aided by individuals and groups in positions of power and leadership, but can only be accomplished by the American people themselves.
Against this backdrop, the Symposium focused specifically on institutions as catalysts for civic renewal, acknowledging that they are sites in which those seeking to hold, challenge, and sometimes even share and multiply power interact, but do not always cooperate. During the two-day event, contributors focused on the role that various institutions (such as workplaces, nonprofit organizations, K–12 schools, and colleges) can play as mediators through which Americans might learn not only to treat one another with greater respect and understanding, but also to practice a new civic politics: a people-centered, people-driven, co-creative approach to building a common life. Papers addressed several guiding questions including:
• How do we make sense of growing incivility in American public life?
• In what ways have institutions played a role in fostering this contentious environment?
• What historical and contemporary examples offer lessons and inspiration for institutions seeking to model, promote, and educate for civility and civic renewal?
• What resources do various civic traditions offer to help contemporary institutions address growing divisions in American society and catalyze people-driven, co-creative, constructive public work?
• What are some concrete strategies for advancing civility and public problem solving within and through American institutions? What obstacles would have to be overcome to implement and successfully execute them? [End Page vii]
Articles appearing in this special issue were presented as drafts at the Symposium or inspired by participation in it. Collectively, the pieces in this volume represent diverse perspectives aimed at reimagining our democracy in a way that meets the myriad of challenges facing our nation and the broader society.
We begin this volume with an essay by John Wood, a national leader for Braver Angels, America's largest bi-partisan organization...