The WWII generation showed us the way to a stronger country, says the CT Public President.

The WWII generation showed us the way to a stronger country, says the CT Public President.

Most of you probably know a few people whose parents or grandparents fought in WWII. And I hope most of you have also voted in various elections – from City Hall to the House of Representatives to the White House.

Well, those two things are linked because the people who went to war were fighting for a very simple idea: democracy.

However, it was not always seen this way. You see, before Pearl Harbor there was considerable opposition to US entry into the war. There were many isolationist groups, including the America First Committee, formed here in Connecticut at Yale University.

However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the country came together almost overnight. President Franklin D. Roosevelt mobilized the nation to eliminate dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Japan. When peace was declared in 1945, democracy won, but only after a long and costly war in which more than 400,000 Americans died defending the principle of self-government.

Now, 77 years later, those who fought the battle have left us to run the democracy they saved. But today’s airwaves are full of crass rhetoric that challenges some of the tenets of what defines us as a democracy: peaceful transfers of power, free elections, and bipartisan candidates willing to debate each other. What happened?

It is impossible to name just one or two reasons why public discourse is so hardened and divisive today. The list of usual suspects sounds familiar: the rise of social media, polarized cable news, a lack of civic education in our schools, a dwindling number of newspapers in the US, anger at civil injustice, powerlessness in the face of rampant gun violence, unattainability of a university education and a growing lack of trust in many of the institutions built to keep democracy strong and thriving after World War II.

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I had the unique pleasure of working for US Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, who was a World War II war correspondent and newspaper editor before entering politics. As a young man, I learned a simple lesson from him. He was the originator (as far as I knew) of the phrase, “You can disagree with people without feeling uncomfortable.” He really lived that lesson.

Simon served on the Immigration Subcommittee chaired by Republican Senate President Alan Simpson of Wyoming. Also on that subcommittee were Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Orrin Hatch of Utah.

They couldn’t find four other iconic examples from their respective political parties. Each of these senators had passionate and often opposing views on politics, but they really liked each other. They gave me a front row seat to a democracy that works well. They could discuss ideas and, in the case of Simon and Simpson, they enjoyed working together. This is because they respected each other and saw their work in the public service as a privilege and an honor.

Very few of his successors do so – at the federal, state and local levels. But I’ve seen a sign of hope recently.

The Connecticut Public sponsored an event with a group called the Braver Angels in conjunction with the Governor M. Jodi Rell Center for Public Services at the University of Hartford.

Braver Angels derived their name from President Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861.

“We are not enemies, we are friends,” pleaded Lincoln. “While passion has pressed on, it must not break our affection,” he said, expressing his belief that “the best angels of our nature” would help unite a troubled union.

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The simple goal of Braver Angels is to get Republicans and Democrats involved in civil dialogue. The event was attended by State Representative Cristin McCarthy Vahey – a Democrat from Fairfield – and State Representative Steve Harding – a Republican from Brookfield. The program is available on CT-N.

Led by Braver Angels founder Bill Dougherty, the two lawmakers from different backgrounds and parties shared what they had in common: they both care deeply about their families and were raised with strong father figures who instill a sense of duty by example, both see in public service as an honor and privilege, and both hope their efforts can make their communities and states a better place to live.

These two lawmakers have voted differently in the past and may do so again. But if they end up working together on a bill, I have no doubt that the trust they’ve built in a relatively short event will result in a stronger, bolder bill. And maybe even have fun doing it.

Let’s hope the boldest angels among us insist on a return to property in our public discourse, honoring the sacrifices of those who died to save democracy over 77 years ago.

Mark G. Contreras is President and CEO of Connecticut Public, home of Connecticut Public Television (CPTV) and Connecticut Public Radio (WNPR).


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