Putting the "civil" back in American civic life
Dr. Robert M. Ponichtera
Executive Director and Founder,
Our neighbors aren't very smart and they're lousy parents. That was the gist of an op-ed, written by Catherine Rampell for the Washington Post at the end of 2015. In it, the author cited studies from the Pew Research Center and the American Family Survey to show that, whereas Americans typically think very highly of themselves, they believe their neighbors are lazy, have unhappy marriages, and can’t control their children.
How did we get here? After all, it wasn’t always like this. Up until recently, we tended to have a degree of faith in our neighbors and in the abilities of the people who led our political and social institutions. The reasons for the trend away from civility are myriad. Journalists and scholars have constructed sophisticated theories to explain it, which cite everything from video games to unfettered campaign contributions. The result is that we’re angry and we need something or someone to blame.
Because of cultural and linguistic barriers, the immigrant community makes a great target in this regard. Depending on your source of information, immigrants are depicted as terrorists, rapists, welfare leeches, or criminals. As the Executive Director of Liberty's Promise, an Alexandria-based, non-profit organization that helps immigrant youth learn about American civic life, I can say emphatically that this is nonsense.
For the past 11 years, Liberty's Promise has worked with thousands of low-income, immigrant adolescents across the Washington, DC, Metro area and in Baltimore, including more than 500 students at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. The greatest pleasure of my job is watching young people gain in self-confidence and believe they can succeed in their new, American home. Our youth are uniformly polite, respectful, and eager to learn. Anyone who visits our programs can see this for themselves. Our young people aren't interested in telling you about how hard they've had it (although some of these stories could make your hair stand on end), but they do want to show you how they can contribute to their community. Give them the opportunity to graduate high school (like 99 percent of our participants), go on to college, and find meaningful employment and they do just that. The problems only begin when we set low expectations for newcomers, presuming they can't (or don't want to) succeed. Young people will always live up to the expectations that adults establish for them.
Setting high expectations for the newcomers among us can help reintroduce a level of civility into our political and social discourse. It might be refreshing to presume people can do their jobs, are working as hard or with as much integrity as their neighbor, or at least trying the best they can, until they prove otherwise (and not proving it otherwise by what we see on television, or what someone tells us, but by what we observe with our own eyes).
The sorriest part of our current social climate is that our lack of civility is so out of character with who we are as Americans. No one can deny that our history as a people includes prominent and ugly strains of racism, injustice, and bigotry. Yet we have also integrated generations upon generations of immigrants into the American melting pot. Many of these immigrants--Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, Madeleine Albright, and Martina Navratilova, to name just a few--have made great contributions to our politics, society, and culture. According to recent research, we are the most philanthropic people on earth, outgiving the British and Canadians two-to-one and other countries at a much higher rate. This is a long-standing tradition for the people of the United States. From organizing relief for starving children in Belgium during World War I to rescuing the Vietnamese boat people, America has given of its resources and its people much more than the rest of the world combined.
However we got to where we are now, it’s time to turn in a different direction, back toward civility, back toward solving problems together as free citizens in which “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” means something. The American people are better than an angry mob. Together, let’s start acting like it.