Nonviolence and The 2020 Election

Fresno Bee, November 1, 2020

recent survey concludes, “22% of Biden supporters and 16% of Trump supporters said they would engage in street protests or even violence if their preferred candidate loses.” The good news is that majorities on both sides say they are willing to abide by the election result. But it is appalling that significant numbers of Americans are willing to consider violence. Now is the time for a primer in democratic values, nonviolence, and the rule of law.

Not everyone loves democracy. H.L. Mencken suggested that democracy puts the monkeys in charge of the circus. But in the U.S., we trust the electoral system as a nonviolent mechanism for resolving disputes and transferring power.

The connection between nonviolence and electoral democracy runs deep. Violent movements tend to be secretive and authoritarian, while nonviolent movements are inclusive and transparent. Violence tends to destroy liberty, while nonviolence affirms it. Violence breeds reaction and animosity, while nonviolence creates solidarity that builds community.

The advocates of violence are impetuous and impatient. Violence is unpredictable. And it rarely works. Riots, assassinations, and civil wars do not produce good outcomes. Political violence provokes backlash. It risks collateral damage. It causes people to dig in their heels. And of course, it is illegal.

Faith in the rule of law is foundational. Thomas Paine explained that in “absolute governments” the tyrant is the law. But in America, he said, “the law is king.” Paine was a revolutionary. The American system did begin in violence. But it was violence directed against the lawlessness of British tyranny.

The aspiration of the American revolution was for a stable, public system of law that would replace the reckless will of the tyrant. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton explained that “mutable” government is “mischievous” and “calamitous.” Instability “poisons the blessings of liberty.” A stable constitutional order can “break and control the violence of faction.” The cure for instability and violence is representational government, regular elections and the rule of law.

This system channels animosity into productive activity. If you did not win this time, get better organized and run again. In the meantime, hundreds of nonviolent methods can be employed. This includes petitioning the government and speaking out in public, as well as strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience. Nonviolence works when it is organized, strategic, creative, and tenacious. The American civil rights movement provides an example.

Nonviolence rests upon fidelity to law. The nonviolent protester is willing to go to jail to mount an internal challenge to the system. She does not seek to evade punishment or to create an alternative system out of the barrel of a gun. Instead she works to transform the system from within.

She also expresses solidarity with her co-citizens, including those with whom she disagrees. Violent law-breaking makes it impossible for arguments to be heard. It also puts co-citizens at risk. Nonviolence opens the door to reasonable discussion. It treats opponents as reasonable beings who can be persuaded. It seeks to convert rather than to coerce.

Ideally the bonds of friendship would hold us together despite our differences. But in this polarized era, it is hopeless to imagine that we could all be friends. We disagree about too much. That’s the reality of liberty. In a free country, we retain the right not to be friends. We are free to disagree, protest, whine, and complain.

But it is the constitutional system that guarantees our right to disagree. So when protests break out after the election, they ought to adhere to the basic principles of a system that allows us to assemble, to petition the government, and to speak freely.

Sometimes it does seem that the monkeys are running the circus. Our differences run deep. But we can find common ground in a shared commitment to liberty and the rule of law. Everyone involved in the electoral process has expressed an implicit faith in this system. To run for office is to agree to abide by the result of the election. To cast a ballot is to affirm that this is a legitimate process. And if you don’t like the result, you can pound your chest and howl and scream, as long as you do so nonviolently.

Voting is a leap of faith

Voting is a little like a leap of faith

Fresno Bee, November 5, 2016


Your vote does not count for much. In the U.S., there are about 150 million registered voters. You are only one among 18 million registered California voters. But there are good reasons to vote anyway. Voting allows you to express your values and participate in civic life.

Ron Hirschbein, a philosopher at Chico State, wrote a book in the 1990s, “Voting Rites,” that considers the metaphysics of voting. I spoke with him the other day. Hirschbein says, “The cruel mathematics of mass society destroys the narcissistic belief that your vote matters.”

The large numbers involved make it unlikely that your vote will change the world in your favor. If you view your vote as an instrument serving your self-interest, then voting is a waste of time.

But voting is not merely an instrumental activity. It is also a meaningful social ritual. Voting has symbolic and expressive value. It is a participatory social act. This year you can help elect the first female president or a billionaire outsider. You can also write in “none of the above.”

Your vote is meaningful to you, even if it does very little to change the aggregate vote count. It is an expression of your hopes and your values. And it matters to you, even if your vote is merely a drop in the bucket.

audienceConsider this analogy. After a concert, people applaud. Your claps only make a miniscule contribution. No one would miss your clapping if you chose not to applaud. But you would miss out on the opportunity to participate in the process. Applauding is a symbolic and expressive gesture, done in solidarity with the audience and in support of the musicians.

Voting is similar. We demonstrate solidarity with other citizens by voting. And we express a kind of faith in the political show.

Admittedly, there are good reasons to be skeptical of all of this. Citizen solidarity may seem absurd in a divided nation. Many people fear that the political show is a rigged carnival game. Monolithic parties, political dynasties, insider trading, gerrymandering and big money all serve to undermine our faith in democracy.

To vote is to say, “Despite all of this, I assert my constitutional right to participate in self-governance.” This is an expressive act and a leap of faith.

Faith – religious, civic or otherwise – is belief in the absence of evidence. In social contexts, faith performs an important conjuring act. Political societies only exist so long as citizens believe in them. Teams, social clubs, businesses, and nations fall apart when we lose faith.

Maybe we are heading in that direction. In 2012, just over half of eligible voters voted. U.S. voter turnout rates trail behind the rest of the world. Maybe Americans are simply giving up on the charade, refusing to applaud this tired old show.

Social life is an elaborate ritual that requires willingness to play along. Ghosts and witches are fantasy, but we carve our jack-o-lanterns anyway. It’s all phony. But when we play along, Halloween exists.


Weddings, funerals and graduations are games and shows that require voluntary suspension of disbelief. The ceremonies are formulaic and often lack depth. But we play along, enjoying the process and the result.

It may seem disenchanting to admit all of this, but grown-ups know that social rituals involve make-believe. Acknowledging this creates deeper understanding of social life and a more realistic assessment of our place within the social universe.

No individual matters all that much to history or society. But we create the shared social world by our individual deeds and commitments. Understanding this gives us the freedom to invest our spiritual energy wisely and appropriately.

This is ultimately a question of existential philosophy. You truly are a grain of sand. But so what? The beach is beautiful, and we find meaning in participating in things that are larger than ourselves.

Democracy is created by the faith of individuals who vote and thereby participate in the life of the country. One vote does not matter in a country of hundreds of millions. But if that one vote is yours, it matters to you. And democracy only exists when we believe that despite evidence to the contrary, our votes really do matter.

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Civic Education

Teachers are the core of our union

Fresno Bee, March 5, 2016

  • Character and civic education is essential for our democracy
  • American schools are unique
  • Character education conference will be held Thursday

Caring and creative educators cultivate the next generation of democratic citizens. It is not easy to transform a child into a compassionate and engaged citizen. But no task is more important. The future of our democracy depends upon the work done in our schools.


Teachers are charged with providing instruction in academic subjects. Moral and civic education seems different. Morality appears to be both more pervasive and more personal than reading, writing or arithmetic. Perhaps we think that morality and citizenship will somehow take care of themselves.

Morality and civic engagement lie in the background of every other educational endeavor. Cheating and dishonesty make learning impossible. Poor citizenship undermines discipline. And bullies destroy trust in community.

I spoke about character and civic education with my colleague, Dr. Jacques Benninga, the director of Fresno State’s Bonner Center. Benninga is a nationally recognized leader in the field of character education. His vision of character and civic education is informed by decades of research and experience – and a great passion for American democracy.

Benninga maintains that American schools have a unique obligation to prepare children to become democratic citizens. He explains that schools have a “fundamental role to play in a constitutional, democratic republic.” He believes that teachers are guides and role models for civic life.

Benninga points to occasional headlines about bad teachers to make his point. We hold teachers to a higher standard. We are rightly appalled when a teacher makes a moral mistake or breaks the law.

The good news is that most educators live up to a high moral standard. Benninga is forthright in his praise for teachers. He says, “most teachers are outstanding individuals who are caring, fair and respect kids. They do the hard work of making schools wonderful.”

Benninga has a lot of data to support this generalization. Since 1988, he has been giving awards to schools that have outstanding programs in civic and character education. Benninga has evaluated hundreds of schools in Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties.

Exemplary schools receive an award at the Bonner Center’s annual character education conference for teaching credential students from Fresno State and Fresno Pacific University. This year the conference will be held Thursday at the Fresno Convention Center.

The conference will feature Renee Gomez, Fresno County’s teacher of the year, and Lisa Butts, Kings County’s teacher of the year. The keynote address will be given by Michelle Herczog, former president of the National Council for the Social Studies. Herczog’s speech is titled “Why We Must Prepare Students for College, Career, AND Civic Life.”


The need for such preparation is obvious. We are not born ready for college, prepared for a career or ready to participate in democratic society. Good education imparts academic and vocational skills and encourages moral development and citizenship.

Educators know what works in terms of character and civic education. Moral and character lessons should be infused within the curriculum, across subject matter. Students should be provided with opportunities for moral action – through service projects on campus and in the community.

Benninga points out that schools provide laboratories for democratic action, in the simple act of voting for student council. Benninga suggests that this is a unique aspect of American schools. It is hard to imagine, for example, democratically elected student councils in North Korea.

We take our democratic and morally engaged schools for granted. Americans have grown up practicing democracy at school. We learned honesty, integrity, fairness and care from our teachers and other significant adults. We practiced tolerance, respect, patience and hospitality in school. Our moral and democratic habits are the result of the diligent work of the previous generation of educators.

Through my collaborations with the Bonner Center, I have visited a number of exemplary schools. I have been impressed by caring teachers who are hard at work in the classroom. I’m hopeful that our democracy will flourish as a result of their labor.

If you know a teacher, thank them for their efforts. And ask them what they are doing to educate the next generation of citizens. You’ll be inspired to learn about the unheralded service that teachers perform daily in support of our democracy.

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Good Citizenship Takes Commitment

Citizenship and The Constitution

Fresno Bee, September 4, 2015


No one is born a citizen. Our Constitution allows so-called “birthright citizenship.” But no one is born understanding the Constitution. Real citizenship requires active commitment to the values of the community.

That’s why civic education is important. Some states have instituted mandatory civics test, requiring high school students to score 60% on the U.S. Citizenship test, the same score required for immigrants to qualify for U.S. citizenship.

In California, State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson and Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court Tani Cantil-Sakauye are leading a new civic education initiative. The chief justice explains, “The strength of our democratic institutions relies on the public’s understanding of those institutions.” Civic Education Partnerships have been created in six counties, including Fresno.

Of course, knowledge about the Constitution is not sufficient. Citizenship is deeper than factual knowledge. It includes a set of values and active commitments. Can those values and commitments be created by education?

I talked about this with John Minkler, a retired educator who is one of the leaders in Fresno County’s Civic Education Partnership. Minkler’s passion for civics is evident from a bumper sticker on his car that reads, “E Pluribus Unum.” Minkler points out that we carry this motto in our pockets every day. Take a look at your coins. They proclaim, E Pluribus Unum – “out of many, one.”

This is the basic idea behind the social contract: we join together to form a community. Individuals reap benefits from belonging to the community. We also have obligations to participate in the life of the community.

Minkler worries, however, that the social contract has eroded. One problem is materialistic individualism. We are often more focused on self-interest than the common good. A related problem is an educational system that focuses on test results and obedience rather than engaged citizenship.

Many have become disillusioned with political life. Young people are especially cynical. Studies show that millennials are less politically aware and committed than older adults. They vote less and don’t trust the political system.

Critical scrutiny of our system is wise. Democratic government requires vigilant citizens. But cynical disengagement is self-defeating. If you believe you can’t change things, then you will not work to change them. And then – lo and behold – things don’t change!

Minkler explains that citizenship develops from involvement in the community, which teaches that individual commitment matters. Minkler has long been an advocate of service-learning. He says that service-learning helps disengaged kids develop the spark of citizenship, as they discover that their effort and commitment actually matters.

Teachers and schools already have a difficult task of developing college- and career-ready graduates. Creating good citizens is yet another difficult task. We can’t expect the schools to do this alone. That’s why the idea of a Civic Education Partnership is important. In Fresno County, the Civic Education Partnership includes educational leaders, business and community leaders, as well as members of the legal profession.

To support this effort, the Ethics Center at Fresno State is co-sponsoring a Constitution Day event at Fresno State on Sept. 17. In case you forgot, Sept. 17 is the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Around the country, that day is celebrated as Constitution and Citizenship Day.

The event at Fresno State will focus on the question of how civic education connects youths to our constitutional system. Speakers will include former Assemblyman Juan Arambula, Fresno City Council Member Esmeralda Soria, Lorenzo Rios, CEO of Clovis Veterans Memorial District, Justice Rosendo Peña, Jr. from the California Fifth District Court of Appeal, Deborah Nankivell, CEO of the Fresno Business Council, and Minkler.

Citizenship involves understanding the Constitution and the basic principles of democratic government. It also requires commitment and engagement. Communities are not abstract ideas created on paper documents. They are living entities in which diverse individuals work together within a framework of common values. No community is perfect. But communities are improved when citizens understand their rights and responsibilities, and when individuals actively participate in the shared life of “we, the people.”

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