Op-Ed: Steve Duprey and Andru Volinsky: Now, perhaps more than ever, civic engagement matters
Oct 20, 2021
From The Union Leader: October 20, 2021
Though we are of very different political persuasions, we have known each other for quite a while. Our paths crossed most recently through our mutual connections to Franklin Pierce University, a private higher-education institution with a deep tradition of viewpoint diversity. We are on opposite sides of the political aisle on many issues — however, we have both watched in horror at what passes for political discourse today.
We feel compelled to speak up and to implore those involved in local, state and federal politics to return to decency and a concern for the public good. This includes the leadership of both our parties. Now, more than ever, there is a need for engagement by a well-informed and civil citizenry that will set an example for leaders to follow.
All of us remember the example of Senator John McCain, who famously admonished a supporter who slandered his then opponent, Barack Obama, in the 2008 presidential race. Can we imagine today’s politicians risking votes to make the same correction McCain made?
What we are experiencing today at school board, select board, and Governor and Executive Council meetings is not advocacy. It is loud and obnoxious bullying. Make no mistake. The goal of bullying is to intimidate and we cannot allow our leaders to be intimidated. When bullies shout down speakers in public meetings or intimidate public employees, the bullies should be removed and, in the appropriate cases, prosecuted.
Obstructing government operations through intimidation is a crime, so is trespassing. If bullying goes without response, citizens who legitimately wish to participate will not be heard. An even greater threat to democracy is that people will also refuse to hold office because of the danger and stress it entails.
Without choosing sides, there are a few basic standards that all of us, regardless of party or views on issues, should follow:
Unless a politician is using his or her home for a political event, their residence should not be the site of picketing.
Even when an elected leader is in a public place, little good will come from following a politician into a bathroom to confront them.
Citizens engaging in a public forum should follow the forum’s rules for participation. The leaders, by the same token, must allow fair opportunity for citizens to fairly make comments.
Engaged citizens also have a right to demand that the content of political speech meet certain standards. Political speech must be truthful. It must be accurate. There is no place for propaganda or false scientific claims. It goes without saying, but apparently needs to be said, that political speech must not include racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs, or images that demean any ethnic, social or religious group.
Being a public servant also has responsibilities. Public information should be readily available and public meetings should be as accessible as possible. This includes a duty to use technology to allow for remotely accessing meetings and a duty to preserve information obtained while in office. Emails should be preserved during an elected official’s term in office plus an additional year after that.
In addition to proposing basic standards for political speech and political conduct by citizens and by those who hold public office, we are also asking the citizens of our state to become more involved, better informed and to seek public office themselves. Rather than giving in to the bullies, every engaged citizen should stand up and support those in office who try to conduct the public’s business fairly and call out and hold accountable the few who would disrupt legitimate public meetings for fear of losing an issue.
A final plea for all of us, citizens and office holders: if you wouldn’t talk that way to a parent or a friend, you probably shouldn’t talk that way in a public forum. It is a bit of an offshoot to the “golden rule” but one too many of us forget given the passions of our times.
Our plea may appear like a fool’s errand, but if our elected leaders at every level model and demand good behavior of all who participate in the public arena, our government will be better, and our leaders will become better leaders. We have faith that, if this positive change can occur anywhere, it can happen here in New Hampshire.
Stephen Duprey, CEO of the Duprey Companies, is a former member of the Republican National Committee who once ran for Congress. He recently joined the board of trustees of Franklin Pierce University. Andru Volinsky, the inaugural Civic Scholar in Residence at Franklin Pierce University, served two terms as a New Hampshire Executive Councilor and ran unsuccessfully for governor in the 2020 Democratic Primary. They both live in Concord.