If there is one thing on which nearly all Americans agree, it is that we cannot agree. The state of civil discourse in America is bemoaned by figures on both the right and left. Studies indicate that partisan polarization is more intense than it has been for decades. Increasingly, American citizens feel like they do not understand one another, and cannot talk to one another. This has led some to observe that American public discourse has devolved into a form of tribalism: Rather than carefully considering important public issues, we tend to take sides instinctively by agreeing with those we believe are “like me.”
Many of us who teach and research in the areas of politics, law and political history care deeply about the skills and thought processes that are being lost. We spend our lives carefully analyzing public policy, developing a clear understanding of law, and trying to make sense of the rich and complicated history of American ideas, politics and constitutionalism. It is discouraging, therefore, to see political dialogue devolve into a raw battle of wills, devoid of any intellectual engagement with vital questions.
We believe this environment calls for a greater emphasis on public engagement by those of us who study these issues professionally. Rather than exclusively discussing narrow, academic questions, we think it is also important to apply our expertise in a manner accessible to and useful for the average citizen. It is in this spirit that we launch Reflections. We take our name from a famous passage from Federalist #1:
“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
The sentiment expressed by Alexander Hamilton is the same sentiment which animates Reflections: The belief that public issues of the greatest importance can be considered in a reasonable and judicious manner. Indeed, the example of the debate over the Constitution’s ratification could serve us well in twenty-first century America. It was a time of great polarization and acrimony. But rather than devolving into a thoughtless battle of wills, the controversy produced some of the ablest political writing America has ever produced. Not only The Federalist, written to support the constitution, but also able Anti-Federalists such as “Brutus” and “Centinel” offer proof that thoughtful and reasoned debate need not die in a rancorous age.
As we launch this endeavor on the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., we are further reminded that our country’s politics and laws have passed through worse times than the present, and that a clearer perception of rights, responsibilities, and the demands of justice can indeed improve our society.
The reflections published here will not solve the national problem of decaying public discourse. They are unlikely to have any impact at all on the outcome of the great political and social questions of our day. Nevertheless, we hope they will serve to inform and enlighten those fair-minded citizens who do not wish to give up on the idea of civil and thoughtful discourse. We hope that Reflections will serve to shed light on difficult contemporary issues, inform our readers about the rich and complex history of American ideas, politics, and constitutionalism, and serve as an example of civil, informed, and levelheaded discourse about interesting and complicated issues.
Our contributors are not united by any ideological or partisan commitments. We also have diverse academic backgrounds. We are simply united in the hope for a more elevated public discourse and a more knowledgeable public. So we will do what is in our power to promote these goals in our corner of the world. It is this unity of purpose and diversity of viewpoints that we hope will make Reflections a breath of fresh air for those who read it in our increasingly polluted political environment.