voice for democracy

We the people must rebuild our democracy | Columns | gjsentinel.com – The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

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By PHIL WEISER
The state of our democratic republic is not well. This is evident not only to those following national politics, but to casual observers of the daily demonization of political opponents, gridlock in Congress and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
As we approach Thanksgiving, we are all awaiting an opportunity to get back together with our families — and the challenge of talking politics at the dinner table. Too often such conversations are driven by overheated rhetoric and division as well as too little commitment to collaborative problem solving. That’s why a generation of Americans are growing up believing that we cannot engage in civil conversations with one another and are even doubting whether our democracy can still work. Indeed, recent World Values Survey findings reveal only 3 out of 10 millennials say it is essential for them to live in a democracy. For those born before World War II, 7 out of 10 people say it is.
When I joined Colorado Mesa University President John Marshall to celebrate Constitution Day, we discussed the importance of civil discourse, particularly with those who see things differently than we do. Those types of conversations are exactly what a 2020 report from the Commission on the Practice of American Citizenship called for. That report explained that civic renewal starts with listening to one another, practicing empathy and reducing demonization. After all, we cannot work to solve problems when we are angrily shouting at or judging each other harshly on social media.
But as we work to rebuild our democratic republic, there is cause for hope in how states function. Here in Colorado, for example, an analysis from the Colorado Sun shows 94% of all bills that became law in 2021 passed in the state legislature with bipartisan support. On the local level, I see that spirit in our work to address the opioid epidemic, with support from every county in our the state. When it’s time to roll up our sleeves and make our communities stronger, division and rhetoric give way to effort and collaboration.
Another model of respectful dialogue that is worth celebrating is the relationship between the late Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. I worked for Justice Ginsburg when she authored the opinion that unlocked the doors of the Virginia Military Institute to women. Justice Scalia was the sole dissenter in the case. Nonetheless, Justice Ginsburg viewed his work with respect and famously said about his dissent, “He absolutely ruined my weekend, but my opinion is ever so much better because of his stinging dissent.”
As the chair of the Attorney General Alliance, I am spearheading the Ginsburg-Scalia Initiative to celebrate the norm and spirit of respectful discourse and engagement modeled by these two justices. Like Justices Ginsburg and Scalia, attorneys general are grounded in a commitment to the rule of law and are well-positioned to resist toxic political polarization. At our best, we recognize, as Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden put it, “what is legally correct may not be politically convenient.”
The ability of state attorneys general from different parties to listen to and learn from one another drives our work on a range of fronts, as we discussed in a Colorado Springs conference held this summer. Take, for example, our work to hold drug companies accountable for their roles in creating and fueling the opioid epidemic, expand broadband access for all and protect our water. In all three areas, State AGs from different political parties work well together. That’s an important tradition to hold onto and a model of civic engagement we need more of.
At the Colorado Department of Law, our goal of encouraging more civic engagement and better civic education is, as I explained on Constitution Day, to “provide opportunities for the connection we all need and that our system requires — allowing us all to work better together to achieve a more civil and stronger society.” That is, after all, the spirit of ’76 — both of 1776, when we established our democratic republic, and of 1876, when Colorado became a state that celebrates dialogue and collaborative problem solving. And that’s something that all family members can agree on at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Phil Weiser is Colorado’s attorney general. Before running for office, Weiser served as the Hatfield Professor of Law and Dean of the University of Colorado Law School.
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