By Dean Lee Feinstein, as published in the Chicago Tribune
This piece may be disturbing to some readers. It offers limited hope, optimism, and earnest language, with brief scenes of unity.
Like many who have worked on promoting democracy around the world, I spend a lot of time these days worried about the state of our democracy at home. The global democratic recession has evolved into an anti-democratic wave.
But as we move into the holiday season of selflessness and good cheer, I found comfort and confidence when I wasn’t looking for it: at a suburban high school in central Indiana, as an amateur judge at one of the first in-person high school debate tournaments since lockdown.
I traveled on a recent Saturday morning on the school bus with my son, a high school senior and the local debate team for a fall day inside watching forensics. The students are instructed to adhere to a judicious mask mandate: Wear them when you’re not eating. Take them off, if you want, when it’s your turn to debate. The students and their parents reacted to the announced safety protocols without a shrug. No complaining. No studied outrage: just a willingness to do what was needed to participate safely in an activity they loved.
The debaters arrived by 8 a.m. at the tournament from large and medium cities, suburbs and small towns across the state. Like their students, the teachers and coaches are a casually diverse and interactive group: white, Black, Asian, and Latino. Some of the debaters have been in the Midwest for many years. Others are more recent arrivals to the United States. Dare to think of it not as flyover country, but as America’s third coast.
In the debate rooms, young people of all races and genders face off against each other. To the students and the debate judges, the racial and gender differences are unremarked and unremarkable.
It’s not that the students don’t have different points of view. If you listen carefully, you can detect leans to conservatism, left activism, libertarianism, and mainstream politics. But there are no bubbles or algorithms in the debate room. Students are assigned to a side and are prepared to argue both for and against the stipulated resolution; in this case: Resolved: A just society ought to recognize an unconditional right to strike.
The debaters support their arguments in one direction or the other with historical cases. The U.S. postal strike in 1970 during the Nixon administration, for example, yielded to postal workers the right to collective bargaining for the first time, but not the right to strike. COVID-19 was used as an argument for and against recognizing the right of health care workers to organize.
Some of the students injected global perspectives into the debate: An unconditional recognition of the right to strike is necessary to protect workers in countries with minimum wages even lower than in the United States, says one debater. She points as examples to Egypt and Iran — maybe with some direct knowledge from discussions around the dinner table. Her opponent says granting an unconditional right to strike disincentivizes work and is impractical for the world’s poor.
The students adopt contending values and value criteria, ranging from “justice” to “personal security,” from John Locke’s social contract to Immanuel Kant’s ideas about “human dignity,” to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And, yes, at the end of the debate, the students set aside whatever emotion may have built up during cross-examinations and rebuttals, with: “Good debate,” or “Nice job,” shaking off the enforced certainties of their debate roles, and the world around them.
These days, I will take hope wherever I can find it. We could all use a day of inspiration with the next generation.
Let’s resolve that the future of democracy in our country will be decided at places like this high school in central Indiana, at the “Crossroads of America.” Where determined people of different backgrounds and perspectives debate tough and divisive issues based on values and investigation. Where, after sparring, partisans treat their adversaries as worthy opponents, not enemies: striving human beings doing their best to navigate a difficult world at this challenging time.