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  1. Opinion

We need to teach civic engagement to save democracy | Dennis Ross

America is ripe for a civic renaissance, the former U.S. House member from Lakeland writes.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, right, addresses a joint session of the Florida Legislature during his State of the State address in Tallahassee. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

Whether you work in politics or are an occasional participant in a local public meeting, you likely agree with the opinion polls. Americans are tired of bickering and distrust in our public life, but they also don’t want our public officials to compromise on their values.

It’s easy to point fingers, but what responsibilities do we, as everyday citizens, have to help overcome the increasing incivility in our society?

At the American Center for Political Leadership at Southeastern University, we are working to find constructive solutions for enhancing public discourse and improving our ability to work with those whom we may disagree. The center, in partnership with The Good Society: A Journal of Civic Studies, recently hosted a scholarly symposium, “Civility and Beyond, Institutions as Catalysts for Civic Renewal.” The participants were a diverse group of scholars and experts in civic engagement and renewal from around the country.

Dennis Ross

Our purpose was to seek a greater understanding of why there is a proliferation of incivility, polarization and declining civic participation. We also sought to find constructive ways to move our discussions, debates and disagreements in productive and positive directions. Our basic takeaway is both simple and necessary today: Civic engagement is crucial if the American experiment in self-government is going to succeed. Furthermore, civic engagement begins at an early age.

Just as we teach kindergartners manners and promote community involvement during middle school and high school, teaching civic engagement is crucial to sustaining a productive democracy. Citizenship is a life-long journey. Every citizen is responsible for civic engagement and respectful dialogue. This includes the “influencers” – corporations, governmental bodies, faith-based organizations, media and nonprofit organizations.

Influencers must understand that when their employees are encouraged to participate in civic life and self-government, they are more productive, responsible and positively reflect on their employer. Similarly, consumers of businesses and subscribers of media, when encouraged to become civically engaged, are likely to reflect civic values.

We believe that America is ripe for a civic renaissance. It begins with communities recognizing the leaders who have shaped democracy in positive ways.

A National Day of Civic Renewal is one way to recognize role models for civility and civic leadership in communities across the nation. Teaching active citizenship at an early age and equipping students to have a respectful, yet passionate conversation on controversial topics will improve our nation’s ability to resolve the issues which confront us. Recognizing that your adversary today may be your ally tomorrow will create a foundation of respect for others while sustaining American values.

We need to acknowledge that differences can strengthen, not divide us. America’s founders knew this extremely well and designed our Constitution with its separations of power to encourage civil discourse, bring differences to light and proceed toward resolution.

We must demand first from ourselves, then from officeholders, business leaders and influencers that the preservation of self-government requires personal responsibility through citizenship.

Dennis A. Ross is the executive director of the American Center for Political Leadership at Southeastern University in Lakeland. He served as four terms as Republican in the U.S. House. He may be reached at