On Thursday night, Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Joseph Ellis was in town for a timely conversation at City Arts & Lectures to discuss his latest book, “The Quartet,” about the formation of the country during what he calls the “second American revolution” in the years 1783 to 1789.
Asked why he spends so much time on the first decades of American history — “The Quartet” is his ninth book — he said it’s because we are still living within the system the Founding Fathers devised, and that many of our contemporary issues, problems and disagreements are rooted in their original ideas and contradictions.
Ellis invoked famed bank robber Willie Sutton, who when asked why he kept robbing banks after being arrested famously and perhaps falsely was reported as replying, “Because that’s where the money is.” Ellis said he keeps going back to late 18th century to understand our political makeup because “that’s where the money is.”
Nonetheless, Thursday’s conversation eventually wound around to the current political moment, to last week’s election results, the stunning rise of Donald Trump and the sorry state of our divided republic. In Ellis’ view, the dysfunction of today’s do-nothing Congress, our divided and politically entrenched judiciary, the isolated presidency and a furious political mood that no longer has the ability to hear other perspectives or find common ground is a dangerous place for a democracy to find itself.
Listening to each other is a lost art, Ellis suggested. The problem isn’t that we are arguing too much about how to conduct our affairs, but that we’ve stopped arguing at all. Everyone seems to think they know the answers, so the only thing left is to be contemptuous of those who don’t see things the same way. We’ve seen it between the political camps of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and between Donald Trump and pretty much everyone else: Outrage is the dominant theme on everyone’s Facebook feed.
Despite all this, San Francisco voted last week to expand affordable housing, and to increase funding for city parks, public health and safety, regional cleanup of Bay wetlands and other worthwhile issues. We saw a closer-than-expected State Senate primary between supervisors Jane Kim and Scott Wiener that promises a tough fight in November and signs that a divided local Democratic Party is leaning more progressive.
Along with the many good reasons to be jaded about the political process — the corrupting influence of money, dishonesty on the campaign trail, the system’s favor of the status quo — elections also are a rare time for elected officials, and those aspiring to be, to exchange ideas of significance for the public good, define their priorities and be held accountable. In politics, the process is as important as the result. Civic dialogue is only emboldened by aggressively vigorous participation.
Voter turnout in San Francisco last week was just shy of 45 percent — the same level it was in last November’s election, according to the S.F. Department of Elections. The fact that less than half of The City’s registered voters cared to cast a ballot last week, not to mention how many others might be eligible to vote but remain unregistered, is not an impressive showing.
Thankfully, we have a few leaders focused on trying to enlarge The City’s electorate, to encourage more political engagement by giving some disenfranchised groups some skin in the game.
On election day, Supervisor Eric Mar introduced a charter amendment to allow non-U.S. citizens who are parents, caregivers or legal guardians of city students to vote in school board elections. It’s not a new idea. Similar measures were rejected by voters in 2004 and 2010, but Mar hoped the third time would be the charm. Especially at a time when anti-immigration fervor is on the rise nationally, giving our resident non-citizens in San Francisco a voice in elections that directly impact their families — power over their children’s education — is a way to defend and reaffirm our inclusive values and build community engagement.
The amendment is expected to be on the November ballot, alongside another measure to broaden the electorate: lowering The City’s voting age to age 16. Earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors lined up behind the measure to place it on the ballot.
As November approaches, there will be a lot to fight about.
“Argument is the answer,” Ellis said last week from the stage at San Francisco’s Nourse Theater.
That, hopefully, we can all agree on.