Civil Discourse in D.C. What (Not) to Do by Keely Smith


On January 7, 2017, I left Arkansas to travel to Washington, D.C. My experience with The Washington Center’s Presidential Inauguration Seminar was invaluable to me. During my two week stay, I fell in love with our nation’s capital, gained incredible political insight, and formed some friendships along the way. As a Political Science major, I had high expectations and even higher hopes, and the city did not disappoint. The focus was to learn ways to elevate, and maintain civility in, political discourse within the context of the peaceful transition of presidential power, and with every new experience, that goal was being met.

Each morning would begin with lectures covering various aspects of our contemporary political climate, from Michael Eric Dyson discussing race relations to Frank Sesno giving advice on how to ask the right questions and spark change. These speakers also broadened my knowledge of U.S. relations with the Middle East, potential national security threats, environmental issues, the budgeting process, and so much more. It was exciting receiving so much valuable information directly from the experts in their respective disciplines, as was doing so surrounded by hundreds of other students who were equally as interested as I was, and perhaps even more so.

In the afternoon, the students would split off into their assigned small groups for discussion. These conversations would sometimes cover recent site visits, but they often related to the lectures from that morning. It provided a platform for each of us to share with our peers what we found meaningful. My favorite day of discussion followed the lectures on race and equity. One of the speakers made note of how, in the wake of tragedies like mass shootings, people of color have an inclination to almost immediately fear that the perpetrator falls into their same minority group. In small group that afternoon, we had what I thought to be a productive conversation regarding privilege, and the subsequent invisibility of traits like race to those who fall within the majority.

As part of the seminar curriculum, we also participated in daily site visits, either before or after the small group discussions. What made that aspect of the program so unique and constructive was the opportunity to bring earlier lectures and conversations into context by further discussing them in places where those ideas are actually applicable. Some of the site visits I attended included the Henry Stimson Center, which dealt with U.S. defense spending, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where we attended a panel on relations between the United States and China and its future under the Trump administration, the Brazilian Embassy, the Holocaust Museum, the U.S. Capitol, and meetings with Representative French Hill and Senator Tom Cotton’s foreign policy advisor. The ability to engage in discourse in these different environments provided both a great lesson in civility and definite personal satisfaction.

Finally, on January 20, it was Inauguration Day. Those of us who managed to get tickets to the swearing in ceremony had to wake up and head to Capitol Hill rather early in order to secure an adequate viewing position. My biggest takeaway from being at this inaugural ceremony was how not to be civil. At any given moment, hundreds of thousands of people were yelling and booing at the sight of whomever they viewed as their political adversary. On the first day of the seminar, filmmaker Julie Winokur emphasized the importance of listening in conversations, as opposed to merely waiting for the other person to stop talking, and that has stuck with me. Chanting foul and derogatory things at the opposition is not the path to creating, and maintaining, civility. Rather, engaged listening and tactful language create a path to elevated discourse, and in divisive times, consciously doing these things is more important than ever.