Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world.

This post begins a five-part sub-series augmenting the themes introduced in Democracy Rising 11. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.

Democracy Rising 12

Getting Started with Dialogue & Deliberation, Part 1

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”[1]

Yet many citizens today doubt just that, and retreat from the political arena in cynicism or despair. This sub-series of five posts looks at how you, as an ordinary citizen, can leverage the power of deliberative dialogue to make a difference.

As with any endeavor, planning and preparation is key to success. This post looks at five steps that are important to preparing to enter the deliberative democracy arena. Future posts will look at identifying where to start, choosing the right tools, harnessing the power of systems and processes, and navigating likely challenges. So you want to make a difference? Here are five things you can do to get ready:

  1. Understand and embrace the role of the citizen.[2] Many citizens doubt their ability to make a difference because they have bought into the wrong narrative of citizenship. Yes, you only have one vote, but citizens are more than voters. And true citizenship requires something more than fans cheering on their chosen gladiators (or performance artists) and jeering at others in the blood sport of politics. Citizenship that promotes democratic change requires that we do the hard work of informing ourselves, of thinking critically, and working through the competing choices. It also requires getting directly out into the arena and engaging with others (as in, for example, finding and turning out like-minded voters).

If democracy is an ecology,[3] then the deliberations of its citizens can be viewed as its wetlands[4]—the purifying filter where organisms work symbiotically together to capture nutrients, neutralize toxins, mitigate erosion, and hold the soil of democracy in place. You, as an ordinary citizen, are one of the many different organisms in this wetlands. Of course, as with actual wetlands, citizens can be overwhelmed by toxins (e.g., hyper-partisanship, misinformation), surges (e.g., floods of information from various media, rapidly developing events), and other ills.

In supporting a representative form of democracy, Thomas Jefferson both identified citizens as the necessary guardians of their democracy and also expressed a lack of confidence that we would be up to the task:

From the conclusion of this war we shall be going downhill. It will not then be necessary to resort every minute to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion. [5]

If we are to have a government of, by, and for the people then we need to pay attention to the environment around us and work with others to improve it. This means embracing an active, involved, and committed definition of citizenship.

How do you make change? Simply start to use your citizen power! Ask hard questions, study the issues, reach out to others, and commit to the kind of critical thinking that makes room for ideas and information provided by others.[6] In politics, unlike sports, you don’t need to wait to be drafted.[7] You do, though, need to make a conscious commitment to doing the hard work of change.

  1. Prepare for the long haul. Change requires patience, commitment, and perseverance. I often ask my students how long they think it generally takes to make a legislative change in policy. They generally guess six weeks to six months. They are stunned and discouraged when I tell them that six years is speedy and 12 to 15 years of concerted effort is not uncommon.[8]

The U.S. civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis referred to patience as “a guiding light in all the work of change” and described it as part of “the commitment people make to finish what they start.” He further debunked the general impatience activists have with “waiting for change”:

Contrary to popular thought, waiting can involve more than defeatist, wishful thinking — it can actually be a pragmatic and realistic catalyst for change. Why? Because it takes our limitations into account. Waiting acknowledges that we are not the prime movers in all things. It concedes that there are factors that lie beyond our control, and any well-considered plan must find a way to manage the unmanageable, to somehow measure and account for the unforeseeable and the unknown, including the work of social change.[9]

This same impatience is often shown with dialogue as well (“we want action, not talk”). Waiting and dialogue are in fact actions that can drive change if properly used.

Accomplishing significant change is a long and slow process. Yet that doesn’t mean change isn’t happening. Pace yourself. Look for and document incremental progress, then build on that. Said another way, claim your seat at the table and be willing to eat in small bites. I once worked with a consumer advocate who on major legislation negotiated more progress than he and his cohorts had been able to achieve in the prior decade—but it was less than what the purists who protested the negotiations wanted. So they called him a sell-out and arranged a press conference to give him a “Benedict Arnold”[10] award. To their surprise he showed up and claimed it, making an acceptance speech that pointed out how much had been gained and would have been lost had he not been willing to engage. That gave him additional credibility with a wide range of stakeholders that not only secured his seat at the table but laid a foundation for further gains. Unlike his peers, he recognized that major changes happen step by step. So take heart from each step, don’t just focus on the final goal.

  1. Understand yourself and the “why” of the change you seek. A country song by Aaron Tippin states, “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.”[11] There is some truth to this. If you want to make change you can’t simply be a dupe for others. You need to take stock of your values, strengths, and weaknesses as a citizen.[12] If you have been overwhelmed by the toxins of “us v. them” thinking, if your research tends toward confirmation bias,[13] if you have difficulty having a civil conversation with others on topics you feel strongly about, then you need to do some remedial work before launching yourself into building deliberative dialogues.[14] There is a reason that “intellectual humility” tops the list of essential intellectual traits for critical thinking.[15] That is defined in part as “Having a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice, and limitations of one’s own viewpoint.” Remember that to make change you need to connect with others and arrogance won’t help you do that.[16]
  2. Align with democratic values. The core democratic values that help democracy work as it should include honesty (with self and others), mutual respect, cooperation, and attention to multiple perspectives, all of which are aligned with the broader values of equality and freedom.[17] These same values underlie deliberative dialogue. Both democracy and deliberative dialogue reflect a belief in the dignity of others and respect for their rights. As U.S. Senator Ben Sasse puts it:

America is an idea – it is a creed. The American idea is a commitment to the universal dignity of persons everywhere.

That’s what America is. The millions of people who’ve braved dangers of every sort to come to our shores: they believed in that idea of universal human dignity. That’s why they’re Americans.

The history of America is the history of trying to realize this idea.[18]

And as John Lewis pointed out, if we truly believe that, then we can’t demonize others:

To reconcile ourselves with one another, we must release our judgments and make peace with the fact that we are one. This country was founded on the ideal that we are all created equal. If we truly believe in the equality of all humankind, how can we put down and belittle one another? How can we disrespect and prejudge one another? How can we come to the point where we malign and hate one another?[19]

It’s these values and ideas, rather than the dismissive and belittling approaches that pass for political discourse today, that lead to productive exchanges of ideas and information and ultimately to pragmatic solutions.

  1. Learn the System. As Susan Clark discussed in Democracy Rising 8 , and as will be further discussed in the fourth post in this sub-series, in order to enact significant change, groups (and individuals) need to learn and work with the systems that have the power to enact that change. Certain kinds of activism can raise awareness of an issue, but they don’t bring you to the solution. Other forms of engagement may bring sympathy and personal connection, but again fail in making change.

Attorney and activist Brian Wallach used his political skills and knowledge to secure funding for research and increased access to clinical trials for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)[20] after he was diagnosed with it himself, succeeding where others had failed.[21] A media account suggested a key reason:

What they discovered was that, for all its lofty purposes, ALS advocacy lacked something fundamental: a basic understanding of how modern D.C. works. Pulling heart strings can get you a press release, but legislative outcomes require sustained engagement, robust fundraising and personal connections.

You individually might not have those connections, but if you are giving your time and money to an organization you might want to know enough about the system and their connections to know that your investment will be worthwhile.

Note that many ordinary citizens did work with Wallach’s organization, I AM ALS, and their willingness to tell their stories boosted the power of political connections and knowledge with the powers that citizens naturally bring to the table. When citizens share their experiences they are talking with, not at, their representatives and fellow citizens and inviting them to join in finding a solution. This kind of heartfelt sharing of a lived experience is less likely to trigger a partisan and polarized response.

Again, it takes many different people in many different roles to bring about significant change. Many years ago The Pritchard Committee’s Center for Parent Leadership in Kentucky distributed a flier to public education advocates throughout the country titled “Collaboration Counts.” It showed a scale of influence starting with “1 parent = a fruitcake,” and progressed through “3 parents = troublemakers,” “10 parents = we’d better listen,” and ended with “50 parents = a powerful organization.” There is power in numbers, but numbers alone won’t get you where you want to go, without a connection into the political system. As John Lewis advised,

Devise a plan for subsequent action once change has come that includes organizing, educating, protesting, lobbying, passing legislation, informing people about the change, and providing for the resistant reaction to your work. Read history, study what happened in the past as you devise your plan.[22]

And even if you are not an alliance builder, protester, organizer, or ready to take on an entire system, there is much you can do in the democratic wetlands to improve the democratic environment in ways that help support and sustain the overall work of change.[23] Even the smallest action in some way can make a difference. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his 19th-century Democracy in America,

Democracy does not give people the most skilful government, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create; namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy that is inseparable from it, and which may, however unfavorable circumstances may be, produce wonders. These are the true advantages of democracy.[24]

And that advantage is found in the wetlands.

______________________________________

Want to see the concepts discussed here applied to an actual issue that you are concerned about? Put questions and scenarios in comments and I will try to address those in later posts.

[1] Attributed to Margaret Mead, anthropologist and recipient of the Planetary Citizen of the Year Award in 1978. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis expressed a similar idea: “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society. Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this planet.” John Lewis, Across That Bridge (Hachette Books, 2017), p. 7.

[2] “Citizen” can be a fraught term. In these posts it refers to a role, not necessarily a legal state—that is, it signifies anyone who devotes a significant share of their time and energy to the concerns and wellbeing of the communities where they live.

[3] See David Mathews, The Ecology of Democracy (Kettering Foundation Press, 2014).

[4] https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2016-02/documents/wetlandsoverview.pdf

[5] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII (1782).

[6] See essential intellectual traits of humility, courage, empathy, autonomy, integrity, perseverance, reason, and fair mindedness in Elder and Elder, Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools (Mini-guide) (2009), available at www.criticalthinking.org.

[7] For further reading on how to plan and prepare, see John Lewis, Across That Bridge, op. cit. note 1.

[8] The Irish Peace Process took over 20 years, beginning with more than 10 years of dialogue outside the public eye. Geoffrey Corry, Political Dialogue Workshops: Deepening the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Vol. 30, #1, Fall 2012.

[9] Lewis, op. cit. note 1, pp. 43, 53, 65.

[10] A famous American traitor in the U.S. War of Independence.

[11] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_s-Qk07KxA.

[12] Susan Clark made this same point in Democracy Rising 6: “Check in with yourself: Are you ready to invite people who may not share your values? While the researchers outline skills for communication among people and groups, they correctly urge us to begin from within. Inclusion involves risks—risking conflict, risking rejection, and risking encountering ideas that might even change your views. Unlike pure advocacy, inclusion work will mean building our personal capacity to see past differences and listen mindfully, not to persuade but to understand.”

[13] U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, in his book Them, refers to the phenomenon of “nut picking,” which is designed more to inflame than inform: “‘Nut picking” occurs “when people scour the news to find a random person saying or doing something really dumb, and then use that nutjob to disparage an entire group of people, as if the nut is representative. . . . It’s a popular exercise because it’s not hard. In a country of 320 million people, someone, somewhere, is doing or saying something asinine right this minute. . . .Start watching for ‘nut picking’, and it’s amazing how much national ‘news’ is devoted to turning a random social media account into a full-scale indictment of this or that group. That’s because it’s good business. Hosts, producers, and executives know that Americans are primed to despise each other – they just need a target. And anger is intoxicating. We’ll keep coming back for more. . . .Most of us recognize this state of affairs isn’t healthy – for us as individuals, or for our country as a whole. Yet tens of millions of us continue to tune in, day in and day out. It’s kind of like drinking too much. We know it’s bad for us – but we need the buzz.” Ben Sasse, Them (St. Martins Press, 2018), pp. 107–8.

[14] One group of citizens studying deliberative democracy created a set of worksheets, titled ”How Do We Make Wise Choices?”, for their own use and to share with others; these can help you get started.

[15] Op. cit. note 6, p. 14.

[16] As Susan Clark wrote in Democracy Rising 6, “Polarization is enormously valuable for mobilizing action. A polarizing message can garner immediate, short-term involvement, and commitment to a single answer. Polarization and outrage go hand-in-hand. . . . But there are times when this divisiveness is not useful. Researchers have long understood that polarization is counterproductive when we are trying to assimilate new information. Ironically, in our passion to create action, our divisive message can reinforce inaction. Polarization is antithetical to long-term collaboration, especially if we’re trying to generate new answers together. Incorporating diverse perspectives informs, enriches, and strengthens community efforts.”

[17] National Council for the Social Studies:College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards (no date).

[18] Ben Sasse, op. cit. note 13, p. 134.

[19] Lewis, Across That Bridge, op. cit. note 7, p. 185 .

[20] Also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, ALS is a so-far incurable neurodegenerative disease that leads gradually to the loss of control of voluntary muscles and eventually to paralysis and death.

[21] Sam Stein, “He Was Given 6 Months To Live. Then He Changed D.C.”, Politico, January 14, 2022. This article provides excellent insight into the combination of inclusion, deliberation, and power discussed by Susan Clark.

[22] Lewis, op. cit. note 7, p. 145.

[23] Want ideas? Consider this “bucket list for citizens” published by the Brookings Institute, or the actions and attitudes highlighted in Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, (Tim Duggan Books, 2017).

[24] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Chapter XIV (1835-40) (online version updated 2021).

 

Teaser photo credit: By Constitution_Pg1of4_AC.jpg: Constitutional Conventionderivative work: Bluszczokrzew (talk) – Constitution_Pg1of4_AC.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11078481