Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

What Grounds Engaged Citizens? A Shared Understanding of Our Democratic Values

by Don Cooper, Director of Civic Initiatives, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

Civics education is often taught to students as if being a good citizen is like following a recipe. Take certain steps—be courteous to your neighbors, read the news, pay attention to the debates, listen to both sides, vote once you turn 18, show up at public forums to share your thoughts when things affect you and your community—and your duties are fulfilled.  

Though these steps are all necessary to participate in our democratic process, inspiring students to become engaged citizens requires something more. It begins with ensuring they have a shared understanding of our founding democratic values, the application of which are shaped over time by our nation’s history and traditions, to moor us as we engage with each other in the public sphere. This shared understanding provides a common foundation for deliberation and debate; it helps guide us to a consensus—albeit sometimes a temporary consensus—on the toughest problems that our nations and communities face.

Simply put, engaged citizens must understand both what we do and the values that guide why we do it.

This understanding is key when the application of our shared values are in competition with each other. One example of where these values conflict relates to telecommunications surveillance. It’s a common thought that our smart phones are listening to us; that’s why some think highly targeted ads show up in our social media or during Web searches. It’s also known that intelligence-gathering agencies have engaged in domestic wiretapping for the purposes of gathering foreign intelligence. Presidents, Congress, and the Courts have been seeking to resolve this tension since the Ford administration first sought to address revelations that the Central Intelligence Agency acted outside the scope of its charter by surveilling citizens, purportedly to gather intelligence on foreign nationals who threatened American security.

At odds are two democratic values: individual privacy, as enshrined in the protections of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure by the government; and a common national defense that is necessary for domestic peace, which includes the President’s duty to protect the nation’s security and, at times, resulted in some presidents and executive agencies arguing the need to act outside of, and sometimes in contradiction to, statutory restrictions.

During Ford’s time in office, a special commission led by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and committees in both the Senate and House of Representatives sought to balance these competing values. These bodies’ outcomes created a foundation for attempts to balance national security with individual privacy through executive and legislative limitations on surveillance activity to attempt to prevent future abuse. One immediate attempt to provide this balance was executed as an executive order by Ford that, in part, increased oversight of the nation’s intelligence-gathering community. Ford also supported legislation that would require the government to obtain a warrant for electronic surveillance of Americans for foreign intelligence purposes that, though not enacted during his administration, became a core procedural tenet of how the nation’s intelligence community operates.  

The balance between these values has shifted in different ways over the last 45 years. The Global War on Terror prompted the expansion of intelligence-gathering operations. During that period the court that was established to consider surveillance warrants on a case-by-case basis began considering and approving “bulk collection” programs. Civil libertarians have been seeking to roll back domestic surveillance powers ever since.

Does our nation currently have the right “mix” of individual privacy and the ability to conduct surveillance for national security? Or, should we return something closer to the original balance sought during the Ford era? Is what the government considers necessary for national security too broad; are our private lives too exposed? Or, is information important to our common defense slipping through the cracks because the legal and regulatory framework has not kept pace with our technological abilities?

One characteristic of being an engaged citizen means being able to participate in this public debate on issues like this with credibility. It means an understanding not just what the three branches are, but what powers they each have—and what powers they don’t or shouldn’t. It means having some understanding of what the founding generation was trying to achieve by protecting our “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” and thinking about how that protection might be applied in a modern context. It means thinking about what citizens are trying to accomplish through their governments, and not just how.

So, this year, let’s find ways to set the recipes aside and, instead, help them understand and engage with our shared democratic values—and especially how those values sometimes conflict at different times and in different contexts. Through this we will help our nation’s rising generation increases its capacity to self-govern.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you consider to be our shared democratic values? Where do you see these reflected in our nation’s founding documents?
  2. What amount, if any, of intrusion into our private lives should American citizens be willing to accept to keep our nation safe?
  3. Tensions between our shared values might be most evident on the national level, but also occur at the state and local level. What tensions might exist in your state or community?

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