Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t easy to convince a 7-year-old and 5-year old to make contributions to America’s civil discourse on a Saturday morning. That said, my oldest two sons were more than willing to attend Rep. Gary Palmer’s town hall in Hoover, Alabama, after the promise of hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

We put on our church clothes. For my boys, that’s a sign that we’re doing something important.

On the ride over, I heard one son say to the other, “I bet this is going to be really boring.” I was more than a little concerned he might be right, or that the event would be exciting in all the wrong ways.

Even arriving 15 minutes early, the closest parking lots were full. We ended up across the street and walked to Hoover City Hall. The crowd was huge and almost entirely liberal in its political alignment. Only a handful of children were in attendance.

My sons were mesmerized.

“We want a leader, not a creepy tweeter,” chanted one couple. That one made me laugh. Signs were everywhere. My favorite was a picture of the Statue of Liberty with a caption saying, “I’m with her.” “Me too,” I thought. We wandered through the crowd, listening to the discussion and introducing ourselves. My boys read the signs and asked questions about what they meant. “What’s an ‘epa?'” asked my eldest, phonetically sounding out the Environmental Protection Agency’s acronym.

We quickly realized there was no way we were getting inside. But that wasn’t really my objective. I wasn’t there as a media person or a policy guy; I was a father who wanted his sons to see what democracy looks like. That ended up being far easier to demonstrate in the large crowd outside because my sons and I could move around and speak freely.

When Palmer’s town hall was slated to begin, he emerged from the building and began to speak. He’s not a loud man, and he didn’t have a megaphone to amplify his voice. One of the leaders in the group simply shouted Palmer’s words and members of the crowd who could hear her simultaneously echoed her to the larger group. It was an appropriate—albeit strange—example of how organized the political left can be at a moment’s notice.

I alternated my sons on my shoulders, so they could hear and see Palmer.

“I know how you feel,” Palmer told the crowd. Even though they didn’t support him politically, the crowd appeared to accept that he was sincere and willing to listen. Palmer then surprised the assembly by promising to hold another town hall to accommodate all of them and ensure their voices were heard. Then he went inside and began the scheduled event that the crowd outside could follow on social media.

My boys and I sat on a hill across the street from the gathering to take in the scope of the whole crowd. I noticed that the media cameras that remained focused on the loudest and most obnoxious voices. Even through Republicans were in the vast minority, The Daily Show‘s Desi Lydic was on the scene and spent the lion’s share of her time with people I recognized as Republican firebrands. I wasn’t surprised at the media’s emphasis on the more extreme members of the crowd, but it affirmed to me that most of us probably aren’t as far apart as our televisions suggest we are.

The majority of the crowd didn’t share my perspectives at all, but they treated my boys and me well. On the way back to the car, I spoke to my sons about the importance of listening and being respectful to people who disagree with us. “We always need to think about the people who aren’t in the room with us,” I said. In this case, I had a literal example of what that looks like. It’s a rare occasion that I use a politician and protesters as a positive example for my boys, but that’s exactly what I did.

Our nation is in a fragile state, but then again, it always has been. As Reagan noted in his famous “A Foot in the Door” speech, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

We forget that too easily. Our American exercise in liberty is a costly one. It demands leaders willing to engage publicly and calmly with opposing political perspectives. It requires voices that speak truth to power, especially when it isn’t politically expedient. Most of all, it compels us to impress upon our children the value of active engagement in our political process.

I have no interest in telling my children and my children’s children “what it was once like in the United States when men were free” because I have every intention of ensuring they experience it for themselves. Rep. Gary Palmer’s town hall was an important step in the right direction, and the hot doughnuts on the way home hit the spot.

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