Those letters to the editor
Love them or hate them, writers keep democracy alive, Roderick P. Hart says


Roderick P. Hart read lots of letters to the editor. He wanted to learn what citizens were thinking about their government — and in their own voices — so he analyzed 10,000 letters published in 12 U.S. cities from 1948 to the present.

Hart visited each city and in 2004 was ready to write his book but was called away to become dean of the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. Twelve years later, he started writing “Civic Hope: How Ordinary Americans Keep Democracy Alive,” published this spring. Hart spoke to Deborah Fleck, letters editor for The Dallas Morning News.

You write that the world looks different through the eyes of letter writers, and letter writers teach you things you have not noticed and make you ask new questions.

What have you learned from all the letters you’ve read?

I guess the one thing I learned was how colorful our country is. How many hues and shades of opinion there are. And of course, you understand that in a general sense, but when you read the letters and as many as I have, you realize that we’re a confederation of people as a nation.

We have extraordinarily different views, and I guess that leads to the largest question, how does a country work? How do you take a nation that has such diversity of opinion and continues to thrive, or attempts to thrive in some way? And it’s a really remarkable kind of experiment when you think about the diversity, and there’s diversity struggle throughout. Now immigration, that’s an old story, and yet it’s a new story. So, I think, to me, it’s sort of a wonder, that all these people have such different and strongly felt beliefs. And yet, the country somehow manages to move down the road. It just makes you wonder in both senses of the word “wonder.” It’s wonderful, and it’s a true mystery.

It’s amazing how the country moves down the road with so much contention.

Yeah, and in some ways, it’s the fights that keep us going. That’s why I end the book saying a culture of argument is our best hope.

When people are arguing, they’re in contact with one another.

One thing that struck me throughout the book was how you included so many descriptions of letter writers as a group.

You quote H.L. Mencken, who called letter writers “half-baked ecclesiastics” and “obscene vice crusaders” and “fantoddish old suffragettes.” Do you agree?

They’re just all filled with opinion.

Most Americans are of the type that say, “I don’t have a point of view on that, I just sort of get along from day to day, and I’m just looking for a hot dog for lunch.” And, “I don’t think much about the issues of the day, I let other people think about that.”

And then, there are these people who have an attitude about every hot dog that they’re eating, and they want to share it with you.

And it’s that sharing part that is remarkable.

So I think they are something of a mystery.

One quote that I put in there, when we interviewed one letter writer, I remember we asked him, “Do you think you’re making a difference?” And he said, “No, but I just have to write anyway.” He basically said, I don’t know if anybody’s out there listening, I don’t know that anybody’s paying attention. I just have to do it! And to me, he epitomized so many of the letter writers.

The main theme of the book is how the letter writers show civic hope. Do you think civic hope is still out there, especially today?

Absolutely. And again, think about trying to distinguish between hope and optimism.

Optimism is that little girl with the smile on her face. That’s optimism. And that’s wonderful, we all need that. But hope is a hard-won feeling. It’s really the possibility that we can change things for the better.

And so as long as these people are out there and throwing ideas into the mix, and combating one another with their thoughts, that’s where hope lies. That’s what I say is a culture of argument. That is our best bet.

Because that means people still care about the issues, they’re willing to put themselves out there. They’re not hiding behind anonymity on a website somewhere. They’ve got their names.

To me, that was one of the things that I tried to spend a lot of time on.

In all the data you have, which is quite a bit, you include the ages of letter writers and the majority are older, like our letter writers. But then you mention millennials, and you ask, “How will they change things?”

And I’m wondering, do you think that they will become a part of letter writing in some way?

I thought a lot about that as I was writing it, because, of course, I teach young people and so I don’t know what the forums are going to be in the future, in terms of media. But what I do know is that as long as we’ve got the American people, they will get out there, and they’ll have their voice heard.

Some people have been saying we are in terrible shape with Donald Trump in office.

But look at the energized forces that have come up against Trump — the women in the pink hats and other protesters. That’s a sign of democratic health. And so, I don’t know about letter writing and what it will look like in 20 or 30 years, but I do know that the American people will show up, and they’re going to have their arguments heard by one another. That, I’m confident about.

You also write about people who read letters to the editor, and I was curious about that, because they can’t explain why. But are they similar to letter writers?

Studies have shown it’s the front page, the sports page and then the letters page and the obituaries that vie with one another as the most-read parts of the newspaper. And so you know, people read letters, and some people start by reading the letters, because to some extent, they find them, as I say in the book, they find them compelling. They also find them irritating. And it’s a bit like the CNN people who watch a little bit of Fox News, or vice versa. They are compelled to pay attention.

What are these people thinking today? I think to some extent, that’s a really healthy sign. They are probably themselves not ever going to write letters. Most of them don’t. But they take pleasure in the argument. And I think, but I can’t prove it, but I think it’s that sense of civic hope that drives them to read letters. They may feel that they don’t know if these people have the answer, but they sure do like the questions that they are raising.

What do you think the future of this art of letter writing might be? At one point in the book you say “letter writers are now standing further back, making fewer personal disclosures ... and are also coarser and meaner.”

Well you know, I don’t know. I think to some extent, the book, it’s about letter writers, but it’s really more about letter writing, it’s more about the conversation. There are really many more readers of letters than there are writers of letters. And to me, it’s that interchange.

And the question is, how can we as a country sustain that kind of interchange of opinion? It may take different forms in the future. It may become more digital, it may become more electronic. Who knows where that will go, but you know, I think the American people have decided they are going to continue to have opinions, and they’re not going to keep them to themselves. That’s kind of been the nature of the people from the beginning. I don’t see that changing.

To me, it’s the sustaining of that conversation that these folks represent. I think that’s the sustenance of the conversation that is the hope of the future. And we’re going to have arguments, and we’re going to be out in the streets and we’re going to be complaining about this or that, and that’s good. That’s healthy.

Do you still read the letters in the papers that you read? Yes, I do. I’ve been hooked on them. I of course don’t read as many as the 10,000 I did when writing the book, but absolutely, yeah. And I teach the stuff. I am concerned about how to get young people involved in the conversation about where their lives are being led by people and are they going to be part of the process, or not? I am optimistic.

There is a feeling of the ’60s on college campuses, and even though it’s not as intense, there is some of that. And I think that’s how — through public opinion — is what corrects the nation. It steers the ship differently.

This Q&A was conducted, edited and condensed by Dallas Morning News letters