The people who visited terror on us last weekend were using the mechanics of the Constitution — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly — to attack its soul, to set fire to the pillars of civility, deliberation, compromise, tolerance and reconciliation that underwrite our system of government.
They are not alone, and far from the first. Think back to the decision in 1994 by Newt Gingrich, then the House minority leader, to run against incumbent Democrats with a scorched-earth strategy, instructing candidates to use certain words when talking about their opponents: “betray, bizarre, decay, anti-flag, anti-family, pathetic, lie, cheat, radical, sick and traitors.”
Mr. Gingrich had nothing to do with last weekend’s violence. But there is a direct line to be drawn from his nihilistic rhetoric through President Trump’s toxic tweets to the far-right sentiments expressed in Charlottesville.
Some have said that the answer, in the wake of Charlottesville, must be to restrict the rights of white nationalists, to alter the Constitution’s mechanics in order to save its soul. That is a dangerous path.
We can go in the other direction. It’s counterintuitive, but our democracy has often been at its best when our constitutional soul has been poked and prodded and has stood up on its hind legs to defend itself. De Tocqueville observed that Americans’ goal was “to instruct democracy to purify its mores, to substitute little by little the science of affairs for its inexperience.” When the Birmingham, Ala., police turned fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators in 1963, a watching world witnessed the violence and brutality of Jim Crow. Jim Crow ultimately collapsed.
Democracy, like a muscle, needs to be worked out. But it’s not mere stimulus and response. We now have to make the right choices. What does this mean, practically?
It means that companies must be more vigilant about their role in the public sphere. They must use their weight to press for tolerance and diversity, whether that means pressuring states on transgender bathroom laws or refusing to sell services to groups that advocate hate.
It means that our colleges and universities must re-engage with the public, to see themselves, as they once did, as sites for community building and education. And they must recommit to instilling the values of deliberation and civility in their students.
It means that news organizations must redouble their efforts not only to convey correct facts, but to present the contextual and fact-checking resources that readers need to understand what’s happening.
It means a broad social commitment to organizations telling the stories of embattled minorities, whether Muslim Americans or L.G.B.T.Q. youth, so they are humanized to the rest of the country. It means law firms dedicating pro bono hours to stand up for the rights of the harassed and the oppressed.
It means mentors teaching young folks that they don’t always have to fight to get what they want, that carrots often work better than sticks. It means government agencies using negotiation rather than just mandates. It means politicians agreeing to sit down together and negotiate, rather than lob hopeless bombs.
And it means governments finally telling the truth about race in our history. It means strong new programs to build bridges between isolated communities. And yes, it means political parties and organizations actively reaching out to the economically dispossessed, who feel left behind by today’s cultural and economic changes.
Madison famously asserted that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” For that, he’s been tarred as an eternal pessimist. But he also wrote, “Human beings’ basic qualities deserved esteem and confidence.”
I’ve spent the last week walking around Charlottesville, meeting with my neighbors and talking about how to learn and move on from last weekend. Virtually everyone agrees that it can make us stronger, if we now make the right choices. We can shore up those pillars. We’ve done it before.