The National Mall Has Gone Dark: What Happened to Thoughtful Discourse in America?

By Tom King

As I write this, the entire National Mall is scheduled to be closed down for the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, along with many blocks beyond it.

What has brought us to this? It’s easy for liberals like me to say “Trump,” but that’s simplistic. So is saying “Putin,” though there’s little doubt that Russian tampering with our vulnerable social networks has contributed mightily, and that Putin had lots of reasons to do to the U.S. what the U.S. and its allies did to the U.S.S.R. I suppose it’s easy for conservatives to say that it’s all because of lax border security, or tolerance of leftist radicals, or allowing women to have abortions, or the machinations of baby-eating pedophiles. But surely only the most mindlessly committed partisans hold such views.

So what is it? I wish I knew. But it seems obvious that we’ve lost – or at least are losing – the ability to engage in thoughtful, respectful, evidence-based debate.

I’ve worked for many years in and around the profession of environmental impact assessment (EIA) – figuring out what damage may result from proposed government actions, and what to do about it. My work focuses on historic places and other cultural aspects of the environment, which are all about how people think, feel, and perceive. Does person X value this building or landscape? If so, how? Why does person Y want to knock down the building or flatten the landscape? How fixed is he in his intent? What room is there for negotiation, for seeking out alternatives? Back at the turn of the century, Duke University Press published Frank Fischer’s Citizens, Experts and the Environment,[1] which made a  powerful case for consulting and respecting the views of citizens in EIA. Fischer’s book was in the tradition of such famous works as 1981’s Getting to Yes, by another Fischer (Frank, with William Ury),[2] showing how intractable disputes could be resolved through thoughtful, respectful negotiation. The works of the Fischers, and others, made me feel like we might be on the verge of a quiet revolution not only in EIA but in government operations generally – answering the call of Isaiah 1:18: “Come, let us reason together.”

But it didn’t happen, either in EIA or in governance as a whole, and now, twenty years into the century, we find ourselves more divided than ever, less able to communicate across partisan divides, to say nothing of resolving problems.

Perhaps it was 9/11. Perhaps Osama bin Laden actually had his way with us, triggering responses in us that laid our differences bare, scratched off all the old scabs.

Or maybe it was Twitter, with its 280-character limit, fine for shouting, lousy for analysis.

Or the death of the Fairness Doctrine, coupled with the unholy cabling together of news and entertainment.

Or maybe a combo of the above and other factors – a perfect storm of communication chaos.

Whatever it was, here we are, with the National Mall shuttered, the stage for our democracy gone dark. I’m glad that Mr. Biden has resisted calls to take the inauguration entirely under wraps – to be sworn in in some secure bunker. I do believe that the lights will come up again, and we will move on. I’m encouraged by the administration’s apparent readiness to grab hold of the great challenges that the last administration has ignored or made worse – climate change and its environmental effects, racial inequality, immigration, perhaps even our ugly history of colonialism. Assuming our democracy gets through the coming weeks intact.

I’m honored to serve as an “advisor” to the National Mall Coalition, whose leadership has been giving a good deal of thought lately to how American history and culture might be represented on the Mall in a manner more thoughtful than that represented by the willy-nilly accretion of war memorials. It’s a challenge, and it’s made more daunting by the obvious fact that history does not stand still; it’s being made all the time.

The 1/6/21 attack on the Capitol is being equated by some commentators with the Reichstag Fire. In front of the Reichstag today there’s a monument to the parliament members who died between 1933 and 1945 in the greater conflagration that event set off. It’s too early for us to consider a monument to the events and sacrifices of 1/6 – after all, we don’t yet know what will happen on 1/20 – but a solemn memorial is very likely to be in the cards.

• Thomas F. King PhD is an advisor to the National Mall Coalition. Email him at


Tags: ,


More Posts in National Mall Coalition Blog