11/14/2012 12:46 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

The 'Agonizing Spasms' of Election Day

Conducting the business of our democratic republic isn't easy. The campaign of 2012 was a reminder that the work is complex. It is messy. It is hard work. "We the People" are a diverse lot. Often we describe our national diversity by listing ethnicities, cultural distinctions, and religions. But these are perhaps the easiest to reconcile, certainly much easier to reconcile than our political diversity. We hold many opinions, many clashing points of view, and we are passionate advocates for our beliefs. We carry these beliefs to the political arena like gladiators, each vying for the attention and accolades of the crowd. But political noise and posturing gets us nowhere unless we use it to forge unity. It takes intentional informed action by educated engaged citizens to create American unity.

Elections are not times when our beliefs or opinions win or lose. Elections are only markers in the journey of a great national debate. The debate continues. We continue bringing forward our beliefs. We put forward our points of view for others to consider. We form coalitions to advocate our agendas. We listen to the beliefs of others and struggle to understand because we need unity to move our country forward. We should value the debate. The ongoing conversation challenges us to refine and improve our opinions. This conversation -- this debate -- is the forum where we hammer out unity from our diversity.

Jefferson noted this very American characteristic in his 1801 inaugural address. He referenced the history of the ancient world, where diversity of opinion caused "agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty." The United States, however, is different. Our diversity is founded on strongly held beliefs, but so is our unity. Of Americans, Jefferson said, "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." He went even further. He declared that radicals who might "wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form" should declare themselves publicly and stand "undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." Freedom of dissent -- to be a loving critic of our nation -- is the essential freedom.

Jefferson spoke with idealism of his young country. Today we know that the diversity of our debate can rock the very foundations of the republic. Our history tells the story: the battle between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over whether to ratify the Constitution, the debate over taxation that sparked the Whiskey Rebellion, the debate over slavery that brought us to civil war, the unbridled entrepreneurship of the robber barons that brought incredible potential for individual wealth and for widespread abject poverty, today there is new talk of secession. Still, Jefferson's words speak to the very heart of the American debate: "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."

Americans do not come to this debate -- this civic engagement -- naturally. Informed, engaged citizenship is a learned skill. It requires constant, continuing education. Effective citizens are sophisticated consumers of information. They ask hard questions about the issues facing their community, state, and nation. They collect evidence across a broad perspective of opinions and points of view and evaluate that evidence to help answer their questions. Effective citizens are articulate. They communicate persuasively with each other and build complex relationships to accomplish their objectives.

All of these behaviors are learned, not innate. They must be practiced and honed. If there is any hope for our future, and for the future of our republic, we must teach our children -- and teach ourselves -- the humanities disciplines essential to maintaining the diverse and complex conversation of engaged citizenship. Without those humanities skills we can never hope to have a robust conversation and debate about our diversity of beliefs and we can never hope to maintain the unity of our republic.