One must especially admire the young voters across West Virginia and the nation who voted at the end of the recent, vitriolic presidential campaign. As new voters, they may not have had the opportunity to be involved in a less fractious election yet. This is all they know.
Yet they went to the polls, did their civic duty out of love for their country, hoping for something better for their family and community.
Elections and public discourse in America have always had an antagonistic streak. Like a courtroom drama between two determined attorneys, each advocate can often be found looking for the other’s weak spots rather than exploring areas of compromise, let alone agreement. Much is at stake in these public battles, so some of that is to be expected. It goes with the territory.
However, if public discourse these days were a steak, it would clearly be seen as far beyond “well done” to “burnt to a crisp.” Most of those who still participate in public debate are hyper-vigilant, lying in wait to make even unconvincing attacks on anyone who doesn’t agree with them 100%.
Such radical extremes are totally unrealistic, as a truly lasting, governing group in a large country requires considerably more breadth than that. The political center, while smaller these days, still holds the key in close elections.
Who will include that center? Who will capture the imaginations of those who vote, who are interested in public policy discussions, but who are persuaded more by civil, reasoned debate and discussion, rather than constant attacks?
Shepherd University may have part of the solution for a national return to civility. Shepherd’s Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications is training students in the fine art of intelligent, winsome public discourse. Established in 2019, the Institute focuses on the role communications play in our political culture.
Importantly, the Institute does not hide from tough political subjects. Rather, it seeks to bring divergent perspectives together in constructive debate and authentic dialogue to foster greater civic engagement and responsibility.
The Institute has been busy, according to its director, David Welch. In addition to hosting a statewide state Supreme Court Justice debate with West Virginia Public Television, the Institute has also been featured on C-Span for a discussion on political discourse and civility.
Students are at the heart of the Institute’s mission, and as part of the Institute’s “Listen. Learn. Engage. Initiative,” students in a variety of disciplines take part in learning opportunities in political and civic engagement that are tied to their field of study. Students come to appreciate that their civic participation is key to a healthy democracy.
The Stubblefield Institute also sponsors the Shepherd University Debate and Forensics team, which won the Division I Team-speech Sweepstakes in 2019.
Welch points to the foresight of the Institute’s founders, Eastern Panhandle residents Bill and Bonnie Stubblefield, who saw a need to promote civil discourse and decided to do something about it. “This was needed,” says Welch. “No other college was really in this particular space.”
Indeed, if ever there were an organization whose time has come, the Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications is it.
Their rapid success since starting in 2019 is a credit to their founders, board members, students, faculty and staff.
However, their run of successful events also suggest a pre-existing hunger for substantial, civil debate and discourse from the public.
The Stubblefield Institute’s very existence is a challenge to each of us as citizens in a participatory democratic system. If we are passive and let the current Dark Ages approach to public discourse continue, our political atmosphere will get even worse.
That means no real education takes place on the issues, fewer people participate in the political process, voters only have low caliber candidates on the ballot, and a continuous ping pong match continues between the fringe elements on both sides who demand complete adherence to their narrow agenda.
That is not America. Yes, we have our favorite parties and positions, but in times past, we have enjoyed the pleasant surprise of hearing a sound argument from a decent person on the other side of the aisle.
The Stubblefield Institute encourages each of us to find such reasoned people. One does not need to agree with them on everything. However, we can start to encourage them and their efforts to engage with more citizens than just their inner circle.
A nationally-obscure U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln once used reasoned debate to sway large audiences away from slavery and towards a fuller embrace of the key phrase in the Declaration of Independence, that is: “All men are created equal.” It was hard, hard work for Lincoln.
But he kept at it — for years — and eventually his reasoning changed the world.
May the students at Shepherd University’s Stubblefield Institute aspire to such greatness, bringing the light of reason and civility to a world that needs it anew.