Nearly Every Presidential Center Calls for Protecting Democracy

Washington Post photo by Marvin Joseph
President Barack Obama, former president Bill Clinton and former president George W. Bush deliver remarks at the Rose Garden of the White House in 2010.

Foundations representing nearly every former president from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama released a joint letter on Thursday calling on Americans to engage in civil political discourse, and to remember that tolerance and respect are key to peaceful coexistence.

The effort, which was organized by the George W. Bush Presidential Center, marks the first time presidential foundations and centers have come together to deliver a statement to the American public.

Missing from the bipartisan group of signatories is the Eisenhower Foundation, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter. David J. Kramer, executive director of the Bush Institute, said former president Donald Trump is not represented in the letter because he does not have a presidential institute or library yet.

In the letter, the signatories note that they “represent a wide range of views across a breadth of issues.”

“We recognize that these views can exist peaceably side by side when rooted in the principles of democracy,” they wrote. “Debate and disagreement are central features in a healthy democracy. Civility and respect in political discourse, whether in an election year or otherwise, are essential.”

While the letter does not call out any specific leader or politician, it issues a clear warning against an alarming level of divisive rhetoric plaguing political discourse in modern America – and specifically notes a rise in public distrust over governmental institutions.

American trust in the government is near a historic low, according to a poll released last year by the Pew Research Center. At the time, only 20 percent of Americans said they trust the government.

Trust in individual institutions has also fallen. According to last year’s General Social Survey poll, trust in the Supreme Court reached its lowest point in 50 years in 2022 – only 18 percent of Americans said they have a great deal of confidence in the court. And, according to a July Gallup poll, 26 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the presidency. The same poll found that 8 percent of Americans feel that way about Congress.

In the past few years, several lawmakers across the country have openly tried to discredit governmental institutions and systems – from elections, to the justice system to federal agencies – sowing distrust among the American public. Among them is Trump, who has spent the better part of the past three years falsely claiming that the 2020 election was fraudulently stolen from him.

In the letter, the presidential institutions urged American lawmakers to actively fight distrust in government.

“Our elected officials must lead by example and govern effectively in ways that deliver for the American people,” the letter reads. “This, in turn, will help to restore trust in public service. The rest of us must engage in civil dialogue; respect democratic institutions and rights; uphold safe, secure, and accessible elections; and contribute to local, state, or national improvement.”

Kramer, in an interview with The Washington Post, emphasized that the letter is not intended to single out any individual or campaign – rather, it is meant to be reflect the progress the United States has made as a nation and the work “that still remains.” The presidential centers, he said, wanted to remind Americans of the importance of pluralism, tolerance, compassion and civility in U.S. politics.

While Kramer acknowledged that some Americans may not want to listen to this message, he said he remains hopeful that it will resonate with people across the political spectrum who “want to be reminded of our founding.”

“We’re not a perfect country, but we’re driving toward one,” he said.

Kramer noted that, despite its timing, the statement is not meant just to resonate with Americans ahead of next year’s presidential election.

“This is a statement that we think goes beyond any electoral cycle,” he said. “It’s long-lasting. But we’re also realistic [that] elections can be messy things, but we hope that the candidates might read this.”

Shannon B. O’Brien, a political science expert at the University of Texas at Austin who wrote a book on Trump’s divisive rhetoric, noted that, while well-intentioned, the presidential foundations may be “preaching to the choir” with their letter. The people it may resonate with, she said, are already “frustrated, or see these things themselves.”

“I don’t think anybody’s going to read this and go, ‘Oh, gosh, we really must return to civil dialogue,'” she said. “This is preaching to people who do believe in civil dialogue with democratic institutions.”

That being said, O’Brien noted that the country is not past the point of no return to civil discourse in politics.

“We have always had strife, we have always had complicated figures, we have always thought that the moment we’re in history is the worst ever or the best ever,” she said. “We are in a moment where things are problematic, but if we stay the course – and the people who believe in our values hold true to their values – things chill out, things move on, things will change.”