All serious citizens claim to revere Thomas Jefferson. It might be worth noting how deeply rooted were his convictions and faith in the people's ability to govern themselves. A faith justified by what he saw in the common sense of the common man, and a faith in the power of reason to regulate human affairs.
Cut to June 2010, and the odd outburst of anti-self-governance sentiment by some of America's popular thinkers on the left -- each trying to outdo the next in excoriating AmericaSpeaks, and the national town meeting they recently held. Since that event (like all citizen deliberation events) was the kind of grass roots democracy-building exercise that one would expect to be trumpeted from the heights of liberalism, one must ask: What's going on here?
On the surface, the criticism was directed at perceived bias in the study guides prepared for the event (though also sprinkled with baseless assertions about AmericaSpeaks as an organization) -- charges nicely rebutted by Harvard's Archon Fung. But beneath the surface, there seems to lurk a sense that The People can't be trusted to think for themselves about the priorities of our national budget, or the direction of our country. And I fear that view is not limited to critics of AmericaSpeaks, but is shared by many on the left.
Ironically, deliberation should soothe the hearts and quiet the minds of anxious liberals, just as it often frightens conservatives, because the result of most deliberations are policy proposals that you'd have to describe as progressive. And that's what happened yet again at the recent national discussion, even though sizable numbers of participants would hardly consider themselves left of center.
Now, I'll admit I'm often critical of the willingness of The People to assume their full measure of responsibility as citizens. Witness the vast majority who choose to stay uninformed and disengaged, and how that enables all the political mayhem we all disdain. But that criticism is not aimed at the capabilities of fellow citizens, but at their willfully low levels of civic and political literacy. But I still trust in the peeps, and know they're up to the job if only given a catalytic opportunity.
Which is why I cheerlead for Deliberative Democracy, as practiced by AmericaSpeaks, and several other national organizations, and hundreds of local efforts across the country. Because citizen deliberation processes give me a dose of much-needed optimism when contemplating the matrix of seemingly intractable problems facing this nation. A sense of relief that there actually exists a way to simultaneously educate and engage citizens, and generate policy solutions that a supermajority of the public can sign off on -- enabling political "leaders" to at long last pass the kind of transformative policies we so desperately need.
If Deliberative Democracy were scaled up nationally, so there were citizen-driven forums happening in every city in the country, on a regular basis, covering all major issues -- we could actually create a self-perpetuating machine of high performance, citizen-driven democracy. Because once you participate in these events, especially the ones that produce real policy impact in the direction that you and a consensus of participants called for -- you feel empowered as a citizen for the first time, and it's exhilarating, and you want to engage more. Once bitten, you're hooked.
Does that sound like an outcome that deserves an assault by otherwise brilliant politically-concerned thinkers and writers?
Most everyone in America agrees that politics-as-practiced is incapable of acting in the national interest. Although I cut the pols a little slack, as it's hard to do that when the people themselves don't know what they really think the national interest is, or should be. At minimum, there's certainly no agreement about it. So we continually search (too often through a partisan lens) for politicians to blame, for policies or institutions to complain about or reform. But sometimes you just have to turn the mirror around.
That's what happened at the National Town Meeting. And that's what happens all the time at the many smaller deliberative events that unfold in towns and cities across America with astonishing results.
I don't know about you, but I'd rather live in a country that was governed with the input of informed, engaged, networked citizens -- no matter the policies they arrived at -- than live in a country where my team played pendulum power politics with the other team to see who'd temporarily take control and ram policies down half or more of the country that didn't understand or want them -- only to be reversed or watered down when the other guys came back in. All the while, our biggest problems continuing to just sit and fester while these partisan tribes insist on their ideological positions, impervious to the legitimacy of voices with contrary views, their political representatives fighting endlessly to the death by appealing to their lowest common denominator of their blinkered bases.
It's pure fantasyland to believe, in this day and age, that ideological solutions can be sufficiently transformative and sustainable. No "solution" can be without the informed support of 70-80% of The People. That's what we need to move the mountains that need moving. The big fixes will never come with 51%, or even 60%. Isn't that obvious yet? To end polarization and paralysis and overall government fecklessness, we need a public consensus on all major issues. And the only way to get there is from the bottom up. The only way.
So instead of seeking to slay dragons where only butterflies soar, critics -- and anyone who considers themselves a friend of self-governance -- should be supporting the hell out of deliberative exercises.
Is any given one of those events perfect? Of course not. But they're our best shot at a future that's safe, prosperous, and healthy. So we should work hard to find any flaws in the process and make improvements -- and then lend our full support -- not snipe and snarl and accomplish nothing.
Far from the critics' characterization of the National Deliberation as "propaganda" or a "rigged deck," it was in fact an inspiring and ambitious effort to involve citizens in the process of learning about, thinking about, and deciding about the priorities and direction of our country
If only we all did that, all the time.
This post appeared at Song Of A Citizen