Community Conversations: Building and Strengthening Civic Friendships

Springfield Community Civic Education Series for Informed Citizenship

Do you believe that fostering strong social networks and building trust among your community is important? Is building a robust democratic citizenry something you care about? If so, then join us for this engaging series of discussions. Each session we will explore a different topic to help us examine what it looks like to build civic friendships and strengthen democracy. Wittenberg professors will introduce each topic and facilitate small group discussions. For more information including session themes, recommended reading lists, and additional background information, please see below.

  • Series Dates: July 15, July 29, Aug 12, Aug 26, Sept 9, Sept 23
  • Time: 5:00 – 7:00, Doors open at 5:00 for light refreshments and socializing, discussion 5:30 – 6:30
  • Location: Springfield Museum of Art, 107 Cliff Park Rd, Springfield, Ohio 45504
  • Admission: FREE

Civic Education Series Background

America’s political system is at an important existential inflection point. Several scholars and observers have warned of a world-wide trend toward “democratic deconsolidation” in which support for key democratic institutions and norms has weakened in the face of significant challenges from authoritarian and anti-democratic ideas, politicians, and groups. As one scholar has argued, democracy’s waning is a specific manifestation of discontent with liberalism—the philosophical foundation for democracy--in general, with many citizens specifically perceiving a failure of democracy to live up to its core values of individual liberty, equality, and rule of law (Francis Fukuyama, Liberalism and its Discontents, 2022). Here in America, this trend has been seen in declining trust in government at all levels, but especially in federal institutions, and the rise of authoritarian far-right groups. Indeed, as Jonathan Haidt notes, social scientists are largely in agreement that three major forces binding citizens together in any strong democracy are waning in America: 1) strong social networks and trust, i.e., social capital, 2) strong institutions, and 3) shared stories (“Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Become Uniquely Stupid,” Atlantic, April 11, 2022).

America’s fabric of social capital—the bonds of trust and reciprocity that connect people-- has also been ripped apart by an increasing lack of consensus surrounding factual information concerning government and politics, resulting from the emergence of separate media silos and ecosystems grounded in different ideological perspectives. This has combined with, and promoted, citizens’ tendencies to succumb to confirmation bias in their consumption of news by only seeking out stories that conform to their preconceived ideas and opinions about politics, even if those opinions are based on false information. When citizens disagree about which news outlets they can trust to provide them fair and accurate political reporting, and when large swaths of citizens scoff at, and label as “fake news,” proven facts about civic affairs, it’s a sure bet that basic trust in the system has waned, and social capital has eroded.

As partisan polarization, partisan gerrymandering, divided government, and the power of incumbency have increased since the 1980s, the two major parties have become entrenched and elections have held less sway as the primary method of resolving policy disputes (although they have certainly not become irrelevant). Into this new political milieu emerged a form of political competition, more akin to trench warfare than legislative give-and-take, dubbed by scholars as “politics by other means.” In this context, the majority party in Congress uses its ability to control the agenda to conduct investigatory and accusatory hearings of their opponents and push for the appointment of special prosecutors to do the same, all in the hopes of tarnishing the images of the opposition, and placating their own base of political supporters. While Congress has an important bipartisan duty to oversee the Executive Branch, and while special prosecutors are sometimes needed, this highly-partisan process of “revelation, investigation, and prosecution (aka, R.I.P.)”to simply tarnish the opposing party’s image, has been more common in more recent years.

Americans have lost much of their consensus surrounding a shared narrative about what it means to live in a democracy and be a good citizen; ultimately, what it means to be an American.  We have also lost our commitment to compromise and consensus as the ways to meet and resolve challenges. As bonds of trust have broken, tribal politics and negative partisanship have become dominant, mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance have eroded, and information systems have become partisan echo chambers, Americans have lost the connective tissue of agreed-upon narratives that help bind citizens together, and undergird strong democracies. These have been replaced with myths and half-truths that each group tells itself about the other. These assumptions are nurtured in the informational echo chambers that have become the essence of American politics. Indeed, as Levitsky and Ziblatt (authors of How Democracies Die) argue, American democratic deconsolidation is rooted in extreme partisan polarization which serves as fertile soil for the rise of anti-democratic, authoritarian movements and tendencies such as these antipathetical narratives that unbind Americans from their connective visions and traditions.

Reconnecting and Strengthening our Civic Ties

To combat the above trends, communities need to engage in the hard, but necessary, work of cultivating our civic ties so that the bonds of trust can be reconnected. One of the ways this can be done is to offer civic education in an engaging, nonpartisan, manner to reinvigorate citizens’ sense of trust and efficacy in the political system. Doing this at the local level is paramount to building a much more robust democratic citizenry.  With this in mind, this proposal provides an outline for how such a seminar series might be organized in the Springfield, Ohio area. It emerged out of a unique partnership of several community organizations including, Wittenberg University, Cox First Media, The Springfield News-Sun, The United Way of Clark, Champaign, and Madison Counties, The Springfield Museum of Art, The Springfield Foundation, The Hagen Center for Civic and Urban Engagement, The Crabill Family Foundation, Seven Wing Creative, and Live from Springfield, USA.

Citizens are typically more attentive to our democratic processes during a presidential election year, so the timing is ideal for such a project. The plan is for these sessions to run during the summer and into the early fall prior to the start of early voting—October 8th-- in the 2024 election. The program designed around three key goals: 1) educating citizens on key aspects of our political system, 2) is empowering citizens to be constructively engaged and 3) instilling hope in citizens that our system is resilient enough to weather the serious challenges we face.

Seminar Series Graphic

Seminar Series

  • July 15
    What Does Good Citizenship Mean to You?
    Professor of Political Science Rob Baker
    Slides for Presentation
  • July 29
    Confirmation Bias and Media Consumption
    Professor of Political Science Staci Rhine
  • Aug. 12
    The American Dream Under Stress
    Professor of Philosophy Julius Bailey
  • Aug. 26 - Event Flyer
    What are America’s Values?
    Professor of Political Science Rob Baker
  • Sept. 9- Event Flyer
    Polarization, Public Perception of the Legal System, and the Legitimacy of the Rule of Law
    Professor of History Tom Taylor
  • Sept. 23- Event Flyer
    How Does Gerrymandering Undermine Democracy, and What Can We Do About It?
    Professor of Political Science Rob Baker

Recommended Reading List

Expectations of Participants

One of the hallmarks of America’s civic tradition is that we often disagree with one another on important communal issues. Disagreement is vital to the health and well-being of our democracy as long as we remember that our fellow citizens with whom we differ are not our enemies, but are what the philosopher Aristotle called our “civic friends.” Civic friendship requires us to care for each other by listening to and respecting different points of view, and to understand that we’re connected in significant ways as citizens such that we all benefit when our community does well, but jointly suffer when it does not.

A key reason for this civic education series, then, is to provide an opportunity for folks to come together as fellow citizens to learn and build stronger civic friendships in constructive dialog with one another. This is an essential role for local communities to play in helping to overcome larger societal divisions and build stronger civic ties, and contribute to a more robust democracy.

To engage in constructive dialog, please remember these following five simple ground rules. The seminar leaders/presenters will monitor these, and enforce them as needed, so we all can learn from each other.

  1. Limit your points or questions to under a minute in length. Long rambling speeches are not conducive to productive conversation.
  2. Each person will be allowed to speak once in the large group until everyone who would like to make a point has had a chance to speak.
  3. Be courteous when speaking.
  4. Please practice good listening skills and try to understand the views of others so everyone is respected and empowered to articulate their questions and views.
  5. Get to know your fellow participants during the sessions. Ask about their lives, demonstrate empathy, practice and cultivate “civic friendship” toward them.

Suggestions for Questions to be Answered or Additional Topics to Be Included

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