AMERICAN DEMOCRACY is being tested every day. Now more than ever we need Americans to understand that democracy takes work. To strengthen our democracy we need every generation to develop their democratic muscles. By increasing the presence of civic education in school-aged children’s lives while providing people of all ages models of the hard work of impactful political discourse, we can make our democracy more resilient and better able to serve the American people.
We just finished observing this year’s Civic Learning Week, celebrated from March 6 – 10, a time to reflect on the fact that even the most representative form of government – like ours – is only as strong as the citizen’s knowledge of how it works and what it looks like when it operates at its highest level. I know because until recently I represented part of the Commonwealth in the state Senate. Now I lead the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate.
The mission of Civic Learning Week closely aligns with the mission of the Kennedy Institute, which is to inspire all Americans to keep our democracy and civic life vibrant and promote civil discourse to drive bipartisan solutions for our nation’s challenges. We at the Kennedy Institute believe that we must engage the teachers and learners alike to promote civic education and uphold the democratic process.
First, we must engage our political leaders to be teachers. There are politicians and citizens who remember a time when there was better political discourse and a greater ability to reach compromise. These are the people in government who must step forward and present themselves as model leaders who have the public’s interest first and who achieve productive policy goals through reaching compromise and not through hyper-partisan invective. If we cannot do this, we are setting a horrible precedent for the next generation that we need to be civically engaged and see public service as honorable.
A 2022 Marist poll found that 74 percent of Americans want to see more compromise towards solutions from their representatives on Capitol Hill, so we know there is a willing audience to see more of what compromise can look like. Through our nationally televised Senate Project debates, the Kennedy Institute, together with our partners at the Orrin Hatch Institute and the Bipartisan Policy Center, are creating debates with sitting US senators to show what political discourse can look like between politicians from opposite sides of the aisle. The more people see that productive political discourse is possible, the more they will demand it of their political leaders. This is how we can make our elected officials teachers of democracy.
For the school-aged learners of democracy, providing civics programming in which they experience debating issues and reaching agreement brings them the understanding that so much more can be achieved through constructive compromise. The Kennedy Institute’s Senate Immersion Module program allows students to inhabit the roles of senators for the day, debate the issues going on in our country today, and create policy that benefits people and communities. By immersing the next generation into the functions of democracy even for a day, we can show them what is possible and inspire them to be more civically engaged and even see public services as a future career.
The solution to strengthening the tenets of democracy is informed and engaged citizens. And we can achieve this by encouraging our elected officials to show the next generation that debate and negotiation are possible; complemented by a robust system of civic education that allows students everywhere to learn by experiencing meaningful discourse and debate.
We believe it is through this two-tiered approach that we can inspire and harness the power of the next generation to reestablish the citizenship, participation, and knowledge that strengthens a democracy. It is how we will learn to talk across differences and preserve this country.
Adam Hinds is CEO of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. He was previously a state senator from Pittsfield representing the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden District.