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What Are We Doing Wrong?

We the People, have nothing if we don't have rhetoric—a sound solution to turning the American democracy around.

We the People—Three simple words that define one of the world's strongest countries.  We the People, are the forgotten "4th" branch of government, and hold the power to make our young country succeed or fail. However, in light of recent events, it appears that our government is failing. Everywhere you turn, Americans have more than enough complaints to go around.  We the People are not happy with the state of our country. We point fingers at the President, the Supreme Court, and Congress.  Those are our three branches of government, so obviously the problems are stemming from at least one of them, right?  But what about us.  What about the power we hold.  Have we forgotten that almost every political figure gets their power from us, because they are elected?

As a broadcast journalism and political science major, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the problems of our nation.  You know them, I don't have to sit here and list them out for you.  

Each issue attracts a different group of followers, some more passionate than others.  But we all wonder how we got to this place.  More often than not, I spend time wondering what it's going to take to get us out of this political mess we're in. I wrote my entire classical argument paper for my college english class about the short-comings of Americans, and how we are a young experiment failing too soon—the ones to blame for the situation our country is in. I hoped this would help guide me into finding the answer, but if anything, it just made me more frustrated.

Being the busy college student that I am, I neglected reading most of the assigned reading for English 105. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy rhetoric, but I don't think anyone would be anxious to read four different books at the same time.  On the last week of the semester, our teacher asked us to read one final chapter in ONE of the books. Okay, I could do that, and I did.  What I didn't expect was how powerful that last chapter would be. 

Chapter 30 of Jay Heinrichs’ Thank You for Arguing, called "Run an Agreeable Country," is the closest attempt at a solution to saving our democracy. I sat there in complete awe at how much sense it makes.  The chapter contains so many valuable lessons every American needs to learn. Like how our country is an exact replica of the Roman Republic, and how our problems echo the ones they faced. History has never repeated itself more soundly. I would have loved to use some of this material in my classical argument essay, as it directly applies to how we are failing our democracy, and how we can stop doing so. I finally have some answers, and they need to be shared.

It boils down to the simple fact that Americans have lost their ability to argue. Our founders set up our democracy with a system of checks and balances to allow each faction to keep the others out of trouble. They were very aware that political parties would most likely arise, and “infest their republic.” They were known as factions at the time.  James Madison wrote an entire Federalist paper, Federalist #10, on how factions will always be the biggest danger we have to overcome.  Our founders knew that political factions would be our demise. However, they were counting on the highly-educated individuals of the republic to keep political parties from gaining too much power. We simply failed to do so. Tribal politics became the harsh reality not through economic and social classes like that of the Roman Empire, but through sets of deeply rooted values and beliefs.

As a journalist major, it's been hard to hear that modern journalist are basically ignoring attempts at truthful journalism, and are just another big corporate body.  Slurs like "fake news" and "the enemy of the people" are thrown around, until no one wants to watch the news at all.  I certainly do not defend journalists wholly—there's a reason these terms came into existence to begin with.  The press is supposed to serve as a linkage institution, connecting the people to their government.  The middle-man. The whistleblower.  The messenger. Shoot the messenger enough times though, and the messenger starts to withhold information. Or, find information not worthy of national attention.  Press corporations are less worried about reporting the unbiased truth, and more interested in selling stories that grab attention.  The majority of America doesn't care about the massive successes on Wall Street.  They're more interested in the potential affair our President had with a porn star years ago, or the college activities the former President's daughter is involved with.  Gone are the days of the Gentlemen's Agreement; now, anything is fair game.  Sex sells, and journalists are out to make money.  We just feed the mess.   

We know the short-comings of our government, and our linkage institutions, but what about our own abilities to seek truth?  Sure, we still have it.  Biology hasn't failed us that badly.  The problem is, we shove "truth" so hard down someone's throat that they don't even want to try to challenge it.  It's easier just to sit back and agree than it is to stand against it. We call it, "science."  Well, duh it's true! It's science! Climate change? Science! Evolution? Science!  Religion? Lack of science! What used to be topics of discussion are now topics of "science," and if you disagree with them, you're just plain ignorant. Young theories and colleges of thought are benign because they can't be proven.  Yet, that doesn't mean that they can't be true.  Unfortunately, our society doesn't want to believe or research anything that isn't proven by "science." 

Heinrich summarized the disaster into a pretty package, “The three pillars of fat in a modern society—journalism, science, and government—are all tumbling down.” Now, the Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” as the word of the year in 2016. Post-truth is defined as the political culture "in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored."  Simply put, it means we don't know how to argue.  We're more concerned with feelings than facts. This is dangerous. Heinrich argues that we are more of a “post-fact” era, where we cast our disagreements away to people in power, and put our emotions above our ability to discern truth.

The divisions of our political parties all stem from values, and that simply cannot serve as the subject of a deliberative argument, let alone an entire democratic republic. We need to make arguments gray again, not just black-and-white. Find middle ground, explore all angles, realize there's more than one solution, and always research more. We need to be virtuous. Virtue is different than morale.  Virtue is "a matter of character, concerned with choice, lying in a mean." (Aristotle) Our society is farther from virtuous than it's ever been, and we have to turn that around if we're ever going to fix the mess we've made. 

How do we create a virtuous society? Through education. Public education in our country has never been more widely available, and school districts need to start implementing rhetoric into the curriculum.  I bet most of you don't even really know what rhetoric is, I sure didn't before my first semester of college.  Thankfully, rhetoric has become the fastest-growing subject in high school education, so we're on the right track. How do you know if someone has been educated in rhetoric? You can't offend them easily.  Their comments are harsh and "insensitive," because they are more interested in finding a solution, and less interested in whether or not they hurt your feelings. 

It's time to revive the founders' original republican experiment and create a new corps of rhetorically educated citizens.  Our culture would then become one filled with rhetorical voices, not one with tribal politics. Public opinion is the boss of a democracy, and it's our responsibility to talk, listen, and challenge each other. After all, that is the job of We the People.

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