Bill Moyers — We The People are our Civilization

Written by . Filed under Citizens, Economy & Business, Politics & Elections, Populism, Ranked Choice Voting, US Constitution, We The People. Tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the Permalink. Post a Comment. Leave a Trackback URL.

Also published in The Patch.

Bill Moyers speaking at FairVoteMN event

Andrea Morisette Grazzini, August 2011

Earlier this summer Bill Moyers illuminated for me a critical relationship between civic leaders and citizens. He was speaking at the home of Minneapolis attorney Clayton D. Halunen at a discussion on Ranked Choice Voting.

Amid divergent interpretations of the US Constitution, I wondered if we should consider the document’s less disputed introductory statement. I’d barely finished asking when Moyers’ reaction, captured in this video, crystallized a pivotal point.

The preamble to the Constitution “says the only way to survive in a civilization is for people to collaborate,” Moyers said. His clarity penetrated an ironic dissonance I’ve struggled with. That over-politicized leaders from all sides have been filibustering the bigger solution.

“Most powerful” political literature

The phrase, which begins: “We the People of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union,” says Moyers, is “the most powerful statement in the history of political literature.”

I’ve been pondering what the former PBS journalist (whose new Moyers & Company will air in 2012)  means.

People, collaboration, union. All are essential for deliberation and decision in our democracy. Without difference, there’s no debate. Without debate, no need for representative parties. No cross-party collaboration, no democracy. Without democracy the US-style civilization we’ve sought since our founding ceases to exist.

It makes sense. But it’s not simple. As evidenced by how blurred rhetoric and national realities like the recession have decelerated US success. Toxic doses of ideologies have sliced an inter-continental divide between connective common ground and separatist self-interests. Drawing and quartering our nation in endless directions from North to South, Atlantic to Pacific.

Increasingly disparate streams of strategy—some well intended, others not-so-much—barrel headlong in separate directions. We’ve near drowned the very voice our founders spoke and meant to serve as the orienting source of our democracy. They would be appalled to see terms like “individual” and “citizen” semantically pillaged and ripped apart from “union” and “we.” By all three branches of the checks and balances government they designed, no less.

Including both congress and the judiciary charged with defending the non-partisan constitution for all “We the People.” A troubling example is Citizens United. Which anoints corporations, among them many in economic bed with global competitors, the uniquely individual rights of “real” citizens even as it manipulates citizens voices and votes. As if multi-national companies were individual Americans, which they are not.

Giving the Finger to Founding Fathers?

It almost seems like these leaders are giving the finger to our Founders. With flawed logic asserting that corporate behemoths’ unaccounted for payments for political campaigns could ever “Unite” a country shaken from its roots and critically damaged by corporate and political corruption. Instead of being empowered by reason and responsibility, Americans are victims of something like self-inflicted organized crime.  Our country’s core character is being violated by the very powers meant to hold it together, including the power of individual people.

But buried beneath the chaos and chasms still lays the structural axis of America’s civilization. The centermost place politicians, public institutions and people could converge. This is the crossroads from which America originates and also to where American’s paths must be oriented.  Where our civic journey was meant to begin and the end which our means should be directed.

This, I suggest, is where the heart of America (over-claimed as it is) exists. And where Moyers thinks we should focus. “Politics,” he notes, “is about trying to create and keep stable civilization.” Why, I imagine, Moyers punctuated his point with this poetic, profound, coda: “Civilization is but a thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the heart of humanity. And it can rip anytime.”

We are Our Civilization.

I’d add every American possesses passions that can help either tear apart or stitch together our country.

To direct our energies to the latter, we must accept our equal capacities for humanness. Ever alert to fragile dynamics that pull us together one moment, the next apart. But also knowing security, stability and survival isn’t achieved by picking away at differences, but rather by putting together intersecting energies.

Interdependence, then, is how the American civilization Moyers speaks of can be strengthened. Like the hearts beating in our chests, our country cannot function without millions of diverse, interwoven, responsive and in-synch connections.

If we seek the well being of our civilization beyond our partisan passions, we can go beyond surviving each other.  We can thrive as different but complementary individuals organized around serving as co-producers of our communities, culture and country.

Where-we’re-at Leadership

By accepting our “where-we’re-at” leadership as stakeholders and stewards equally as much as citizens served by our government.  Co-construing our core purposes and principles by directing leaders to them in our election choices. But, more critically: co-achieving our civic solutions through active, ongoing non-polarized engagement.

By connecting in spite and even in conjunction with all of our differences to reanimate all parts of our one civil heart. Together turning the tables to divide the forces that undermine our rights to be interdependent co-collaborators in our democracy. By seeing ourselves as Moyer’s describes us, We the People:

“Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Liberals, Socialists and others,” he says, are “Rich and poor. We the People are white, black, yellow, brown. We the People: Male, female.”  

Moyers means “we” are every person from the apolitical to the elected.

Its time all who possess a beating heart get theirs pumping in synch with all others who share the same US Constitution.

By serving together in collaboration with and for our Union as —

We: United.  We as People.

Copyright 2011

Andrea Morisette Grazzini is a leadership innovations consultant and participatory researcher.  She founded the cross-partisan initiative DynamicShift in 2009. Her work has influenced numerous regional and national conversations on co-productive change. Including online forums at TEDTalks.



  1. Richard Negri
    Posted 31 Aug ’11 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I don’t disagree with MOST of your comments, but you speak of “non polarized engagements” and while it is a good point, the issue is how do you achieve it. It is manifested in our schools in debate contests, it is the essence of our jurisprudence system, which fosters polarized engagements in trials and the like. And there are many more examples. So the question in my mind is, while it is a noble statement, “non polarized engagements”, we are a long way away from practicing it. It has been a part of our legislative process since our founding fathers established our form of government and the advent of our political parties. Debate is healthy and unfortunately it does lead to polarization.To me it is akin to the issues that spring up like poor vs rich, white vs black, big vs small, etc. which also causes polarized engagement. So again, while we can talk about non polarized engagements, the ability to achieve in our society is only a dream.

    Dick Negri

    • Posted 31 Aug ’11 at 12:14 pm | Permalink


      Agreed we are a long ways from non-polarized engagements. It is increasingly challenging to deliberate and debate in productive ways. A big part of the challenge is cultural. We live in a media driven time where it is difficult to have a substantive dialogue without “sound bites” being the main rhetoric we hear and pass on.

      There is some evidence that negative sells. Fear, anger and distrust are all components that help people “take sides,” fomenting these is a strategy campaigns and leaders use. My personal view is just because it works doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do. Particularly as stewards of community and civic culture.

      The antidote is a lot of counter dialogue, in real relationships, not over-mediated by media propaganda. Similar to what you and I have done, but in more “public” and somewhat “organized” ways, which hold outcomes as win-win rather than win-lose. And which keep these goals in view not only in the discussions, but to also articulate them in other realms and venues.

      Bill Ury, who does high level negotiations, has some excellent models for dialogic change. The “nut” of Ury’s strategy is seeking to see the “other” as similar to “self.” This takes time in sustained dialogues that not only get past superficial expressions and perceptions, but do so with the explicit goal to dig deeper from an “attached” or “engaged” perspective that challenges both parties to see and hear the humanity of the other. This, of course, means both must make good will efforts to both listen and share. Not easy when defenses up. And bumps do arise. In my mind, it is the people who hang in through the bumps who are leaders, not the ones who take a powder when the talking touches nerves.

      One of Ury’s strategies that I love mixes in walking and dialogue. The physical movement helps exercise out anxieties, anger, etc. to make way for more personal and productive discussion. Ury has used this with everyone from world and business leaders in tense dialogues to groups of diverse citizens.

      A colleague of mine talks of doing something similar in MN, perhaps suburbs like ours. Bringing conservatives, progressives and others together for a series of regular walks. To learn about each other, and begin to see each other as a real and constructive asset that can by an ally rather than an enemy.

      In the past, something similar happened with politicians. They brought families to live in DC during their terms. This sense of “we may differ but we come from the same place and for now are stuck together” allowed partisans to connect as real people beyond their political rhetoric.

      In my mind, the economic downturn and its resulting effects of less mobility perhaps sets up an opportunity for diverse people in community to get together more often and, as they do, see ways to work for their mutual well being and that of their immediate area.


  2. Posted 31 Aug ’11 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I thank you for sharing this most important conversation with me and it amazes me that others believe so passionately as I do about We the People. It is so very true that if we as a country do not come together for the betterment of all people. We will no longer have a Country to be proud of, and so many will just be out fending for themnselves.

    Yet as a mother of four sons and a daughter whose main work as an African American woman was being proud that none of them ended up in the System. Now prays that our children will have a world to stay alive in, find jobs in, pray in, and be productive within. You see I did not grow up with much sense, or any self-esteem whatsoever. But today I have volunteered over 5300 hours in my community which earned me the 2010 Presidential Lifetime Volunteer Achievement award, the 2010 Spirit of Peace award because no one believed that with my horrendous childhood background; that I could turn out as I have.

    I am an advocate for democracy, and was the Affirmative Action Officer for the City of Minneapolis DFL for four terms, a DFL Director, on the Central Committee, ran the Obama campaign for our District 62 Caucus and an At Large Director. But I dropped it all, because where truly is our democracy if we pit ourselves against one another. The sort of democracy I can support is truly vested deep within my soul is “We the People”, not some people, but all must stand together united in the Spirit of Peace and Love. That is the only thing that will ever last, and the only thing that will save our nation.

    Mary T. Whitney

    • Posted 31 Aug ’11 at 12:49 pm | Permalink


      I’m struck by your use of “proud.” It is, at the end of the day, what we want to be able to say about our country, our families and our communities.

      Our sense of the individual has led us to see pride as a self-achieved goal. In fact, there is little that is self-achieved even when funds, access and initiative are present. Without teachers, our students can’t learn; without businesses, we can’t create as many jobs; without workers, businesses can’ t succeed; without emotional intelligence–which is only learned in relationship–few can navigate the complex networks that can help them succeed and retain self-pride.

      When you think of our greatest leaders of industry, sports, community, faith and families they have rarely been the ones that pit their success against others. Their passion came from the human engagements they created and the success of others they promoted.

      I think of a friend who recently died. A quiet architect known for his brilliance in large international projects. At his funeral, few spoke of his very visible successes — enormous buildings and structures that can’t be missed. Instead they talked of him as a “vision-maker” who believed no idea was not possible and with no attention to himself (and usually littler or no pay) helped others’ believe in their visions and make them come true. With the same energy and perfectionism he brought to big public projects.

      He once told me why he liked to help neighbors and friends with their various and mostly humble projects. He said “I want to make the place I will retire and where my grandkids will live a greet place.” Which he did. Needless to say, leadership like his is infectious, and others of his friends both follow and model his lead to help their area thrive.

      As you note, acts and attitudes like these are those that will last as legacies we, as his children are, can be proud of. But, we need many, many more of them.


Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>