Like many of you, I am still trying to make sense of what happened Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol and what it means for our country from here.
But as an author of books for children on U.S. government and civics, a question that concerns me, as I am sure it does parents and teachers, is: How do we explain what happened to our children?
This is not an unimportant question, because what the next generation of voters, parents, civic leaders, and politicians does in the next five, 10, 15, and 20 years could very well determine how long our republic survives.
In my first book, “How the U.S. Government Works” (a title I have been rethinking in recent years), I explain that the government’s power comes from the people, and that the people play an important role in helping the government do its work. I say that people vote for the nation’s leaders, pay taxes, and serve in the military and on juries. In addition, people let their elected leaders know what’s important to them by writing letters, attending public meetings, and gathering “together in large groups to let the government’s leaders know what they want.”
“The leaders of the government depend on the people to tell them what kind of laws they want and what the government can do to help them. If citizens don’t like what the government is doing, they can vote to elect new people to lead the government and represent them in Congress. If they do like what the government is doing, they can vote to keep them in office. The people give the government its power and the people decide whom they want to exercise that power.”
It seems so all-American, public spirited and altruistic. But in the aftermath of last week, I think it’s too simplistic and rosy. I think we owe it to our children and to the future of our country to say a lot more. Let’s start with what Mitt Romney said in the Senate before the counting of the electoral vote resumed: Telling them the truth.
We must tell children that government power is an important responsibility, not to be taken for granted lightly. We must also explain that not everyone who seeks public office is necessarily doing it for the public good. That some people have personal interests that may not serve the public interest, and that some people do not always tell the truth.
We can teach our children not to believe everything they hear from family and friends, in the news media and on social media. We can teach them that they have a responsibility to educate themselves independently about important public matters and about candidates for public office, to consult multiple news sources for information, and to ask hard questions and be suspicious of too quick or facile answers. Government is complex, especially in a large, diverse country. Our future voters and decision-makers must learn to consider multiple sides of an issue and appreciate that easy solutions to complex problems rarely work.
Most important, we need to teach our children that we don’t all share the same values and priorities, that we need to listen to each other, find common ground and be willing to compromise over matters on which we have different points of view. In my book “The Bill of Rights: Protecting Our Freedom Then and Now,” I describe the many interests represented at the Constitutional Convention: big states versus small states; mercantile versus agricultural; North versus South; strong national government versus states’ rights.
“With all of these differences, writing the Constitution required the Framers to make deals or compromises. With these compromises, one side received some, but not all, of what it wanted, and the other side got some, but not all, of what it wanted.”
We must teach our children, as the Founders taught us, that compromise in the interest of common good is a strength of our form of government, not a weakness. (And yes, as part of this conversation, we must also examine critically the compromises that perpetuated slavery and contributed to our troubled racial history). We must help the next generation to recognize that while politics may be about winning and losing, governance isn’t.
The story of the United States has always been about the conflict between personal freedom and public good. Historically, some Americans have seen the world as “Every man for himself,” while others as “We’re all in this together.” While the former has helped to build great wealth and power, the latter has helped us through some of our most difficult times. I believe it is becoming increasingly obvious that this is one of those times.
I end my book “The U.S. Constitution and You” with the oft-repeated story about Ben Franklin, who was asked by a spectator outside the State House at the end of the Constitutional Convention, “What have you given us?”
“A republic,” Franklin said. “If you can keep it.”
I hope we can teach our children what they need to learn to satisfy that sacred responsibility.
Syl Sobel (www.sylsobel.com) is an attorney and author of children’s books on U.S. history and civics.