Originally published by The Hill.
By Kyle Treasure, Christine Cooke, and Amber Maxfield.
A Trump voter, a Hillary voter, and a nonvoter walk into a room — and study the Constitution of the United States, together.
That wasn’t a joke. That’s precisely what the three authors of this article have been doing regularly for the past few months.
The truth is, we see the world differently in many ways but also have a lot in common. We share a desire to better understand the U.S. Constitution. We want to join the conversation, not just add to the noise by being opinionated but ultimately uninformed.
So for this Constitution Day — Sept. 17 — we’d like to share three things we’ve learned:
1. Understanding the Constitution will help you identify fake news and other distractions.
Major news sources focus primarily on the federal government but often neglect state and local politics. That’s a problem because it suggests that all noteworthy government action is at the federal level.
You may be familiar with “checks and balances” — the relationship between the three branches of government. But the Constitution is also very clear about federalism — the proper relationship between state governments and federal government. Woven throughout the Constitution are mechanisms to make sure federalism permeates our entire system. Did you know that prior to the 17th Amendment (ratified in 1913), the Constitution called for state legislatures, not the general electorate, to elect U.S. senators?
The thesis of the Constitution is to limit power, both horizontally and vertically. Imbalanced coverage of politics at the federal level can become a distraction from government at the state and local level.
Though media and commentators often criticize congressional gridlock, it isn’t entirely a symptom of a broken system: It’s an outcome that our founders anticipated. Like the constitutional amendment process, change in law is supposed to be slow. Frequent changes in law are not usually healthy, regardless of whether the policy is considered a “win.”
During recent presidential administrations, we’ve seen what happens when law is quickly changed — executive orders lead to chaos and anger. While news outlets cover the pros and cons of executive orders, the truth is the Constitution does not explicitly say anything about executive orders.
2. Studying the Constitution has a unifying effect.
Regardless of political party, policy preference or voting decisions, Americans share something remarkable — the most provocative governing document in the history of the world. We share a common story of independence and freedom. That’s a point worth emphasizing.
The game of politics is naturally divisive. Politics can give us a sense that government and civics is really about teams — your team versus my team, the winners versus the losers. Conversations get ugly quickly when we are hyper-focused on parties in power, nominated candidates, and legislative agendas.
On the other hand, unity is found in principles. Americans believe in liberty, equality and opportunity — unifying ideas.
Naturally, Americans who are united in these principles still may never agree on everything, and that’s OK. In fact, commentaries on the Constitution like the Federalist Papers show that conflict and compromise have always existed. But recognizing the persistent threads in principle give way for a launching pad in common ground, revealing that you and your neighbor voting for different candidates is merely a product of a two-party system. Perhaps the only true conflict is between these principles and our inability as a nation to follow them.
3. Reading the Constitution is easier than you might think.
The Constitution itself isn’t that difficult to read, in part because it was intended to be read by farmers (18th-century American voters). A lot of information is explicitly spelled out. It’s certainly easier than the Bible, for instance. Sure, there are interesting interpretations of clauses and complicated case law that give phrases greater meaning, but not all of the text is that hard to discern. Give it a go.
Of course, to really understand all of the text, commentaries provide context. There are a lot of options out there. Take a look at the Avalon Project out of Yale Law School (they publish the Federalist Papers online). Peruse Heritage Foundation’s Guide to the Constitution. There’s also just good old-fashioned Wikipedia or Google to answer basic questions (like what is the president pro tempore of the United States Senate?).
Keep in mind that the Constitution isn’t very long either. In total it contains 7,591 words, including the 27 amendments. A quick read in comparison to say, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which was 257,045 words, making it 34 times the length of the U.S. Constitution. Many of us read that magical book in a week or less. While the content of the Constitution may not feel as riveting, it’s worth it.
It’s true that right now, most Americans seem frustrated, whether Trump voters, Hillary voters, third-party voters or nonvoters. But for us, studying the Constitution was refreshing. Honor the Constitution for this Constitution Day by taking some time to read it. You might even enjoy it.
Originally published by the Deseret News.
“SLC, you’re killing me. Put your phones away. We can see you. This isn’t a movie. What is up with you guys?” This tweet from Joseph Morales — the actor who plays Alexander Hamilton in the touring Broadway musical — created a firestorm on Twitter last weekend.
Morales retweeted some of the most vitriolic reactions to his observations. Fans of the musical responded by unleashing nasty retorts and personal attacks.
It was not a great time for civility in our local discourse.
This coincided with coverage of the White House Correspondents’ dinner, where comedian Michelle Wolf mercilessly roasted the media, the administration and anyone linked to them. Allies of the White House shot back with equal venom.
President Trump is often accused of bullying, but is taking potshots from a podium the best way to respond? Or a tirade on Twitter? Does being politically active mean throwing out clapbacks at any provocation? Or is there a better way?
I think there is. Former first lady Michelle Obama alluded to it when she said, “When they go low, we go high.” But what does “going high” really look like?
Someone who made a habit of “going high” was former first lady Barbara Bush, who didn’t compromise her decorum even when Sinbad ridiculed her physical appearance at the 1991 White House Correspondents’ dinner. Her pattern of living prompted many to say after her passing that she embodied the principles of civility, grace and respect. We would do well to emulate her.
“Going high” also looks like seeking out and embracing the commonalities with our fellow Americans. For instance, as Americans, we share certain rituals and values.
Rituals are one of the most effective ways to unite any group of people. Religious communities and families understand that and have used rituals for years to unite their members, but rituals can also bind a nation. Fifty years ago, Americans shared the experience of watching Walter Cronkite deliver the news each night. Today, online memes are commonly shared hundreds of thousands of times, bringing millions into a massive inside joke. The point is that it doesn’t matter what rituals bring us together — the important thing is to have shared rituals in the first place.
Many Americans also share in the value of engaging locally. Communities are bound together when we get involved in each other’s lives through acts of service.
During last year’s horrible hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, communities banded together to save their neighbors and make things right again. When there’s a death in a family, it’s common for friends and neighbors to bring meals to a grieving home. When someone is too old to rake leaves, community members will often step in to take care of it.
The acts of service that unify communities are innumerable. Getting involved with our communities is especially important when we think we’re too divided over political or societal differences. Each of us can do our part to “go high” by becoming aware of the needs around us and then reaching out to help.
We must let our bonds of affection outweigh even our starkest differences.
President Abraham Lincoln said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The Twitter users who responded to Hamilton’s Morales with hate and negativity did not “go high.” They went low instead of keeping with the principles of civility, finding common ground and engaging in elevated dialogue.
When vitriolic tweets and jokes are being hurled all around us, we must appeal to the better angels of our nature and go high.
In the midst of the firestorm, Morales struck a tone of principled civility with a subsequent tweet, referring to the idea that the Utah Jazz and Hamilton are competing for audiences’ attention: “The world is wide enough for @utahjazz and @HamiltonMusical.” Indeed, the world is wide enough for all of our differences.
Originally published in the Deseret News.
Americans with differing ideological opinions have become increasingly entrenched in their own ways of thinking — creating an ever-growing division that invites incivility and prevents productivity.
According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, over half of those who identify as Republicans or Democrats have a “very unfavorable” view of the opposing party.
We’ve seen what this disunion looks like in politics. In 2009, Democrats scored a major legislative victory when they passed the Affordable Care Act. Republicans retaliated by refusing to hold a hearing for the president’s Supreme Court nominee. Democrats have attempted to do the same for most of the new administration’s Supreme Court and Cabinet nominees. Back and forth it goes.
We’ve dug ourselves into a hole. Luckily, we can get out.
A story I heard many years ago could be instructive here: An old donkey fell down a well. The farmer decided to just fill it in, burying the donkey. As the dirt came raining down, the donkey started to shake off the dirt and step up. Pretty soon, it was free to walk right out of the hole and onto solid ground.
Democrats, Republicans and all Americans would do well to shake off vitriol and step up to something better.
We should shake off real or perceived injustices — especially with our neighbors, friends and families — and step up with elevated dialogue to foster real discussions.
We should shake off apathy and step up with compassion, rising above the cacophony to a new morning in America.
Stepping up as American citizens means being actively involved in the political process. Stepping up includes serving and being served. It means forgiving.
It includes going out of our way to talk with those who come from a different background than us. Organizations like The Village Square brilliantly accomplish this by intentionally fostering discussions between people with ideological differences to break down harmful barriers. It’s in discussion that we discover common ground we didn’t know existed.
Stepping up should also include our responses to bad behavior. I recently posted a tweet about the need to treat everyone with respect, even those with divergent opinions. I was amazed when I immediately received a negative response from someone I didn’t even know. They said that Black Lives Matter and the women’s marches after the November 2016 election figuratively threw the first stone of bad behavior. The danger of trying to figure out who persecuted whom first is best summed up by a statement often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
This is also a call to our elected leaders to step up. They should lead the way in shaking off old ways of doing business to find resolutions that will transform our nation for the better. We need our leaders to join this cultural shift.
There’s work to be done, and when Americans can learn to shake it off and step up, our nation will land on solid, higher ground.