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From Discord to Declaration: How Debate Made America

With the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence just over the horizon, it's a good time to reevaluate the hard-won achievements of that time and how they forged the American identity - and what lessons can be distilled for our increasingly polarized society today.

The American project is the most successful and innovative experiment in pluralist society and representative government that the world has ever seen. For all of its many flaws, it has produced better measurable outcomes in human security, freedom, dignity and prosperity than any political entity in history.

But that success was forged out of a contentious, deeply fraught, cross-section of competing interests across the thirteen colonies - a reality that persisted into the divisions of the Constitutional Convention eleven years later.

So what can we learn from the America of 1776 that can help us address deepening polarization that plagues our civic, political, and personal lives in the 21st century? This is a question that we have grappled with in developing the Dialectic mission and its methodology. So, naturally, we have thoughts, and here are a few:

  • IRL matters. The momentous accords of both 1776 and 1787 came about in large part because principal stakeholders came together in person to disagree, debate, and find crucial common ground where they could shake hands and see each other face to face. Much of what is unhealthy and unproductive in 2023 arises from the remote, anonymous distance at which we engage.

  • Where conflicting interests exist, the best outcomes emerge from the interplay of opposing ideas. Disagreement is good, debate is good, not just because we want to tolerate and hear other opinions, but because it almost always produces better outcomes when we do. This is true in almost every context: business, government, communities, and even in homes.

  • Structure matters. Structured debate and disagreement in public forums has a long history. From Athens to Oxford to the floor of the US Senate, established protocols have always been observed to ensure both sides are heard, main civility, and to bring the best arguments on both sides of contentious issues to the fore. There's nothing inherently wrong with the kind of point-scoring and verbal brawling that tend to define our current information ecosystems: but the likelihood of either side coming away with a better understanding of the opposing viewpoint is remote.

  • Constructive disagreement is rarely easy. It takes time, attention, and can be messy. American founders in 1776 and 1787 spent long arduous hours and days engaged in exchanging ideas, arguing both the big picture and the minutia, and gradually bridged the divides to reach historic agreements. We have, to some degree, lost the capacity to do this. But we can rediscover it.

1776 might seem like a distant reference point for some of Dialectic's core objectives, but the principles that guided deliberation both around the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention are squarely in any road map to setting a higher standard both for our public discourse and our private disagreements.

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