July 1, 2022

How The National Constitution Center Upholds Civil Discourse and Constitutional Conversation

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Author National Philanthropic Trust

Political disagreement and debate are a fact of life in any democracy, but as most Americans can attest, politics—and even everyday life—feel particularly polarized, partisan and personal in 2022. A recent piece in The Atlantic argued that this kind of friction in the United States had reached “pernicious” levels that could “put democracy itself at risk.”

The team at the National Constitution Center is acutely aware of this fact. But as the organization approaches its second decade, it isn’t simply wringing its hands—it is actively working toward bridging the gap by facilitating healthy civic discourse. The Constitution Center’s President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen describes the organization as “America’s leading non-partisan platform for civic education.” By focusing on America’s founding document through public events, debate and discussion, the Constitution Center has the potential not just to educate, but to elevate informed debate and even heal partisan divides.

Finding a constitutional lens for civil dialogue and debate “brings down the political heat and requires some deep learning…an open mind, active humility and listening,” says the National Constitution Center’s Jeffrey Rosen.

That isn’t always easy work. Social media echo chambers and decreasing public trust in institutions means that today “there aren’t a lot of places to have these meaningful, civil conversations,” according to Rosen, himself a a legal scholar and commentator. “The founders believed that the American experiment would not succeed unless citizens learned to have civil dialogue, of disagreeing without being disagreeable.”

Rosen says there is one basic ground rule: “we only discuss the Constitution, not political issues.” He says that examining hot button topics like the Second Amendment or freedom of speech through a constitutional lens “brings down the political heat and requires some deep learning…an open mind, active humility and listening.”

Millions of Americans and visitors from abroad visit the museum on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall and engage with its online resources. The Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution is used in classrooms across the country. Rosen hosts the weekly We the People podcast, breaking down legal and constitutional issues, and recent live conversations with scholars and experts have focused on timely topics like Juneteenth and voting rights.

The Constitution Center’s work resonates with donors who, Rosen explains, are “increasingly inclined to give unrestricted support to make this kind of programming possible.” The Constitution Center has received millions in funding from more than 40 donor-advised funds (DAFs), including grants from National Philanthropic Trust’s donors. Rosen notes that unrestricted support from DAFs “can respond quickly to organizational needs and are flexible in helping us pivot and adjust to changing circumstances.”

This was especially important throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, in which much of the programming shifted to virtual and online environments, still reaching hundreds of thousands of students. Rosen explains that “we were able to do that, largely, because many of our donors unrestricted their gifts, allowing us to spend them on general operating expenses and support.”

Donors who give to the Constitution Center, Rosen says, have a “personal investment in our mission as a whole and understand that it is an extraordinarily meaningful role we’re playing.” Philanthropic support allows the Constitution Center to continue its work, cutting against the partisanship of today, and refocusing the conversation on the values outlined in the founding document, an important effort not just for the health of democracy, but for its survival.

Photo courtesy of the National Constitution Center

About the Author

Aly Semigran is a Content Specialist at National Philanthropic Trust. She has been writing and editing professionally for over 15 years, with articles in Billboard, Well + Good and Mic, among many other notable publications. In addition to her editorial background, Aly is currently getting her Master of Social Work degree from Temple University. She resides in Philadelphia with her dog.