From the angry Tea Party crowd on the right -- to disappointed Obama fans on the left -- most concerned citizens are frustrated that they can't seem to make their voices heard by elected officials. Some wave their fists and fume, but the vast majority of Americans grow cynical and tune out of politics altogether. As such, we become less informed about the issues, and thoroughly disengaged from political problem-solving -- from the very concept of self-government -- resigned to the notion that there's nothing we can do to impact policy other than vote and hope.
But is that really true?
Or is there a way to radically amplify public voice -- and build a powerful lobby of informed active citizens?
The cutting edge practitioners of Deliberative Democracy point the way.
In the land of DD, ordinary citizens come together in structured deliberative gatherings in one's own community. Guided by trained facilitators, participants learn about a given issue from objective study guides, and deliberate together until they develop a collective view about how to address it. They then turn talk into action by ensuring that policy makers pay heed -- or pay a price.
These forums occur in communities and cities large and small. And there have been hundreds of them around the country in recent years, often with stunningly impressive results. Yet DD still flies well under the national media radar.
Nevertheless, an array of national and local DD organizations, along with scores of individuals at universities, foundations, and elsewhere, do this transformative work day in and day out -- facilitating unique non-partisan town meetings where an entirely new caliber of citizen is being successfully incubated.
Forget supermajorities in Congress. Experience in citizen deliberation proves 70-80% consensus is achievable. Think about that. Think about what kind of transformative policies Congress could enact knowing they had 80% of the public on board, and insisting on those policies. Think of how much less corrupting money in politics would be if they didn't have to raise so much to buy so many expensive TV spots to manipulate ignorant or gullible voters.
The level of introspection, conversation, and self-motivation these forums inspire, and the public policy changes that often result, represents one of the greatest resources ever developed for activating and maintaining deep civic engagement. And yet it is a mostly untapped resource -- one that, with more visibility, could help usher in a much-needed new view of the role of citizen in American self-governance. The informed citizen at the center of politics.
On Saturday, June 26, another DD milestone will be reached when thousands of Americans from across the country come together -- face-to-face, and online -- to participate simultaneously in an unprecedented National Town Meeting to weigh in on how to more effectively manage our bloated federal budget, and how to reduce the mountain of debt we're leaving for future generations.
In large scale forums in 18 communities, and at hundreds of smaller gatherings in other locations -- all linked by satellite video and the Internet -- demographically representative groups of citizens will deliberate amongst themselves to help define budget priorities and how to pay for them. Their collective views will then be delivered to leaders in Washington -- who have agreed to pay serious attention to the results of this exercise.
Anyone, of any political persuasion, who cares about effective governance and serious civic engagement should devote a sizable amount of attention to this field -- and should try to participate in the June 26 event. It's free, and you can find a forum near you here.
Or join the virtual conversation in Second Life.
Or read a post about it from the president of AmericaSpeaks, who is organizing this event.
But this event should be considered only the beginning. Imagine the concept of citizen deliberation fully integrated into the DNA of the body politic -- so there are deliberative forums, large and small, being held in every community in the land -- on a regular basis -- as a permanent fixture of American self-governance.
To get to that promised land, it's critical that we loudly trumpet deliberation as citizen power-building -- to let the whole country know that the answer to all their frustration, rage, and disappointment about politics and government is available to them if they are willing to roll up their sleeves and spend the time necessary to join or form a deliberative forum in their communities. And stick with it.
Or, we can just stick with politics-as-usual because that's worked so well for us.
Given the sense of empowerment experienced by participants when their talk turns to action, these forums -- if scaled up -- could power an enormous and self-perpetuating machine of democracy.
And when you throw the miracle tools of the digital age into the mix -- Deliberative Democracy offers the potential of true participatory democracy on a mass scale for the first time in history.
Try it. You'll like it.