As the country marked its 242nd year of independence, JSA CEO Ken White ponders the state of U.S. democracy and the role of JSA. This blog was originally published on The Bridge Alliance, a collaborative of civic education and civic-minded nonprofit organizations.
What Makes a Mature Democracy?
It’s been 242 years since the United States declared independence. Yet, we’re still a young nation. Surveying the state of American political culture, it’s not difficult to conclude that, as a country and a culture, we’re still in our adolescence.
This week, we celebrated our Declaration of *Independence*. What word better defines an adolescent’s vocabulary than “independence”? What document expresses more beautifully and succinctly the twinned pulls of freedom and (hopefully) responsibility that adolescent experiences?
There are benefits to that: We can be open-minded and enthusiastic, unbounded by “conventional wisdom.” We’re also fickle about our policy and partisan preferences, changing governmental control frequently (and sometimes unpredictable). In one moment, we’re proudly heralding opportunity and peace; the next, acting unwisely.
In many ways, we’re just like the teenagers who so ably lead the Junior State of America, who also sometimes behave like…well, teenagers.
What teacher hasn’t seen a teen behave with thoughtful maturity in one moment, and a spectacular absence of judgment a microsecond later? What parent hasn’t been on the receiving end of some variant of: “I hate you! Get away from me! Will you drive me to the mall?”
If you’re a chuckling adult, let me invite you to take note of the current culture…and your own behavior.
Do you feel a strong, almost irresistible temptation to see “the other side” as unfair, regressive, and just plain wrong?
Perhaps all of us—teens, adults, politicians, pundits—are drawn back to teendom. We (self included!) find safety in our cliques, where we’re free to lash out at ‘the other’: “You’re such hypocrites!”
Even though, deep in our hearts, we quite likely suspect we need them.
The Junior State of America is designed for teens to help them learn how to help build a more mature democracy by practicing the skills necessary for a mature democracy. The Bridge Alliance is helping promote these same skills and values among a collaborative of civic-minded organizations.
Given the recent trend toward hyper-partisanship, toxic discourse, and scapegoating, it’s not hard to prefer a JSA Convention to almost any political gathering, and JSA’s nationwide Town Halls to much of what passes for national conversations on difficult topics in all dimensions: media, community, and government.
The students of the Junior State of America approach public life as an opportunity for reinvention, using own special genius. JSA students are not yet hardened into warring factions, and the JSA Values and culture encourage respectful, thoughtful engagement across all manner of difference.
As teens grow and mature, we hope they will retain the core values inculcated in their youth as they face the challenges of adulthood. So too, perhaps, with our democracy: we mature when we understand the principles that have guided us, absorb the lessons we have learned, and adapt to present circumstances.
Here’s to independence, and also to exercising it responsibly.