“You are our only hope … you are our future,” former Democratic U.S. Congressman Jim Cooper told hundreds of students who filled Tucker Theatre for the 20th Constitution Week commemoration at Middle Tennessee State University.
Cooper was joined on stage by former Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker for a panel discussion Monday, Sept. 18, on “Common Sense Civics: Can We Work Together Again to Solve America’s Problems?” It was the featured event for the American Democracy Project’s annual observation of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
“This is your chance to bring democracy back,” Cooper, who spent over 30 years serving in Congress, told the audience. “Register to vote, vote and know who you are voting for. … Every time you fail to vote, you are turning over all your power to folks you hate, and they use it against you.”
Viewed widely as among the more moderate members of their respective political parties, Cooper and Corker are both known for their willingness to work within their parties and across party lines for the common good.
Corker, who has been in the news recently for his unapologetic disapproval of his party and former President Donald Trump, disparaged social media’s role in the extreme partisan politics.
“The greatest evil to me in politics has been social media,” Corker said. “It has been the No. 1 factor that has created the polarization and the conspiracy theories that travel around the country that are absolutely not true and yet cause people to vote certain ways as a result.”
Paul Singer, a public history graduate student, and Alandra McMillan, a senior political science/pre-law student and member of the American Democracy Project at MTSU, served as moderators of the discussion. The students queried both retired lawmakers about the state of America and polarized politics from both sides of the aisle.
Cooper represented Tennessee’s 4th and 5th Congressional Districts over a span of 40 years and is currently a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville.
Corker, a businessman and real estate investor who served Tennessee as a U.S. senator for 12 years, has previously been named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine and has been an outspoken opponent of extremist policies and politics.
Like Corker, Cooper was critical of Trump and reminded the audience the former president’s charges relating to impeding the election certification process and the citizens’ guaranteed right to vote. As an audience member interrupted with a rebuttal regarding Trump, Cooper calmly stopped the heckler and referenced the incident as an example of the panel’s topic on civility.
“It is incumbent upon people that are elected to create a vision that tries to meld (both sides) together,” said Corker, who also admonished mainstream media for fueling trending topics from social media. “People are not willing to address the biggest issues our nation faces.”
Cooper said voters hang onto fanatical issues when problems can and should be solved at the local level.
“We have to, as people fortunate enough to live in a democracy, make things work again and don’t get seduced by Washington,” Cooper said.
In addition to questioning from the moderators, audience members were encouraged to speak to the retired legislators.
MTSU annually observes the U.S. Constitution’s 1787 signing with volunteers reading the document in its entirety in several locations on campus throughout Constitution Week, observed Sept. 12-19 this year. A highlight of the weeklong celebration is a program like Monday’s panel discussion on Constitutional issues.
History professor Mary Evins, coordinator for MTSU’s American Democracy Project, called the annual program a “wonderful capstone” of the university’s 20 years of Constitution Day commemoration and the project’s contribution to the university community.
“Our express purpose is to advance civic learning across the disciplines to make civic learning and civic engagement central, not peripheral, to our university’s identity and pervasive not partial throughout our campus,” Evins said. “Our express goal is that civic learning be ongoing.”
Sponsors of the event included MTSU’s American Democracy Project, Albert Gore Research Center, Center for Historic Preservation, Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies, Center for Educational Media, Free Speech Center, Political Economy Research Institute, Department of History, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Department of Global Studies and Human Geography, College of Liberal Arts, University Honors College, League of Women Voters of Murfreesboro/Rutherford County, Distinguished Lecture Fund and Office of the University Provost.
— Nancy DeGennaro (Nancy.DeGennaro@mtsu.edu)