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Members of the D&D Community Respond to Health Care Town Halls on Blogs, Radio Programs & More

Here is a compilation of some of the best thinking and writing that has come out of our field in the past couple of weeks in response to the volatile town hall meetings on health care being held across the country. Please add a comment if you notice we’ve missed something important!

Upgrading the Way We Do Politics: Article by Sandy Heierbacher

Based on many of the items listed below (especially the recent conversation on this topic on the NCDD listserv), NCDD has put together three articles that we encourage you to share widely–on your websites and blogs, with your legislators, in your local papers and community newsletters, etc.  The articles focus on how legislators can engage citizens in ways that are more participatory and more productive than what we’ve seen in the news lately.

The full article, at www.ncdd.org/rc/item/3172, is meant for sharing on the web. A similar version of this article has been posted to the Yes! Magazine website at www.yesmagazine.org/democracy/upgrading-the-way-we-do-politics/ so feel free to link to that page as well.

A one-page article focused on tips for legislators, at http://ncdd.org/rc/wp-content/uploads/1-pg_town_hall_article.doc, and the one-page article focused on why we’re in the situation we’re in, at http://ncdd.org/rc/wp-content/uploads/why_town_hall_article.doc, are both great for sharing with Congressmembers or for submitting as letters to the editor of your local papers. Please use this text and these ideas however is useful to you, though we prefer if you preserve the text about NCDD and the list of resources. Also feel free to print out and share the great-looking one-page color PDF flyer we created.

Here’s a good example of an adaptation/expansion of these NCDD articles…

  • Op-ed in Manhattan Mercury prepared by the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University (Sunday, August 23)

Invitation to an August 24th Health Care Forum in DC

View the invitation from NCDD member Alexander Moll, to a “Health Care Reform Public Discussion” on Monday, August 24 at 6:00 pm at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC. This deliberative event is sponsored by National Issues Forums and the Kettering Foundation. Alex posted the event to NCDD’s Facebook group, so you can sign up to attend there, or email Alex at alex@citsov.org.

Violence and Incivility at Town Hall Meetings on Health Care… What Can the D&D Community Do?: A discussion on the main NCDD listserv

We’re been having a particularly active and rich conversation on the main NCDD listserv about the violence and mayhem at town hall meetings on health care legislation, and what our community of practice can/should do to help ensure future political events are more democratic and productive.  A lot of thoughtful posts have been added by leaders in our field like Pete Peterson, Barnett Pearce, Kenoli Oleari, John Godec and a number of others.  You can view the listserv’s archives and/or subscribe here. You can also subscribe to the list by sending a blank message to NCDD-DISCUSSION-SUBSCRIBE-REQUEST@lists.thataway.org. You can also look over my initial message that started the conversation.

Tips for legislators dealing with high emotion and coordinated anger: August 8th NCDD listserv post by Martin Carcasson

Martin Carcasson (Director of Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation) submitted made a thoughtful contribution to the NCDD listserv conversation that included some particularly helpful insights and ideas for legislators in situations of high public emotion. I posted it to the NCDD blog here. (Note: you can view the listserv’s archives and/or subscribe here.)

Astroturf Protestors and Fake Town Halls: August 28th article by Pete Peterson on Fox & Hounds Daily

This is a great article by Pete Peterson, the executive director of Common Sense California and a lecturer on state and local policy at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy. Here’s an excerpt:

Even though most of us have never participated in such an event, the name [town hall meeting] still conjures thoughts of a participatory process, where, if participants are not able to make an actual decision, they can at least offer opinions on an issue that will be honestly considered. While there have been organized disruptions at many of these health care gatherings, reports from many of them indicate that things turned ugly once participants learned that they were there solely to be “informed” about the health care proposals – not to participate in a real debate. Listen closely to the comments by Congressional leaders (and, recently, the President), and you hear the words of people who come to these meetings with the understanding that they are there to teach attendees the benefits of their reform plans.

View the full article.

“Are disrupted town hall meetings an evolutionary opportunity?”: August 10th post on Tom Atlee’s Blog

This long post by Tom Altee — Founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute and a leading thinker and activist in our field — includes links to videos and articles on disrupted town halls and a great synthesis of many of the themes brought up in the NCDD listserv discussion. Tom also weaves this into his interest in evolutionary activism, saying “What excites me is the fact that a potentially influential group [NCDDers] moved beyond ignoring or suppressing energies and perspectives they didn’t like and took the opportunity to explore responses to a crisis that might shift the whole system, from the ways people interact to the ways whole societies pursue more wholesome visions.” View the post.

“Town Halls by Invitation”: Op-Ed in the August 16th New York Times by Jim Fishkin

Jim Fishkin’s op-ed on holding deliberative polls as an alternative to the modern town hall meeting structure was published in the Sunday, August 16th issue of the New York Times. Here’s a quote from the article: “There is a way of organizing town halls that would offer lawmakers representative and informed feedback about their constituents’ major concerns: a deliberative poll. Whereas ordinary polls represent the public’s surface impression of sound bites and headlines, deliberative polls bring together a scientifically selected microcosm of a lawmaker’s constituents under conditions conducive to thinking about issues. In effect, an entire Congressional district really can be put in one room.”  NCDD member Jim Fishkin is the author of the new book “When the People Speak,” director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford, and creator of the Deliberative Poll. View the article.

Audio recording of Martin Carcasson and Peter Levine on WHYY-FM Radio Times program

On Thursday, August 13th, Martin Carcasson and Peter Levine were guests on “Radio Times” with Marty Moss-Coane. That’s a call-in program of WHYY-FM in Pennsylania. The MP3 file is here, and you can listen to the program online. On his blog post about the program, Peter said “I think we agreed that the protesters are exercising free speech, expressing views that belong in the political debate, and should be treated respectfully as citizens (not as robots operated remotely by special interests). On the other hand, a format for discussion that encourages angry individual speeches is pretty alienating for most citizens and is a poor source of information or enlightenment. We could do better–although both Martin and I noted that the political and media environment work against deliberative politics; and even good forums might be vulnerable to hostile takeovers.”

Must mention that at the end of the program Martin told a caller whose local school district is in conflict with community members, “If you go to ncdd.org, which is the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, it’s the umbrella group of just all the people that are doing this work.  If you post to the NCDD website or listserv and say ‘Hey – I’m having this problem and I need some help,’ you’ll probably get help, because you’ll find people that have the expertise and have the passion to try to spark better conversations and help communities solve problems.”  Thanks, Martin!

“When Town Halls Go Viral, There’s Sickness in the Air”: Article in the August 15th Washington Post

This article by Washington Post staff writer Philip Kennicott quotes de Tocqueville and discusses how today’s town hall meetings are world’s apart from New England Town Meetings as Normal Rockwell depicted them. The article mentions NCDD organizational member AmericaSpeaks and quotes AmericaSpeaks president Carolyn Lukensmeyer as saying that what she’s seeing today are “faux town hall meetings that aren’t anything about deliberation. . . . People are coming in advocating the answer, they’re not coming in to learn anything about the options.” View the article.

Better Health Care Depends on a Stronger Democracy: An August 13th Statement from the Groups Behind SOND2

On August 13th, Everyday Democracy, AmericaSpeaks, Demos, and Professor Archon Fung of Harvard’s Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation (the groups behind the Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy 2 meeting I recently blogged about here), released a joint statement.  The statement concludes with “When laws and policies result from narrow partisan victories, they easily topple when political winds shift. But when they are rooted in broad public deliberation and participation, they are far more likely to grow strong and true in the decades to come. There is no better time for all of us to raise our voices and actions in support of what our democracy can be. Not only meaningful health care reform, but the health of our democracy is at stake.” View the statement.

Suggested Guidelines to Improve Town Hall Meetings: August 18th post on David Campt’s blog

NCDD member David Campt, a.k.a. The RaceDoctor, added a post to his blog, The RaceDoctor Speaks!, which lays out an experimental strategy for public officials to maximize the chance that the health care town halls embody at least a minimal level of order and civility. The core idea is to provide a structure that calls upon a basic sense of order, but also effectively responses to the reality that many people who attend the meetings are motivated by a chance to vent frustrations about the current health care plan. View the post.

Town Hall Democracy: September 16th post on Noelle McAfee’s GonePublic blog

Noelle McAfee posted to her blog, GonePublic, yesterday about the need for more deliberative town halls. Noelle, a professor at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, concludes her post with:

We need to find ways to start deliberating together, to ask ourselves, what should we do and what are we willing to give up to get what we want. We need to think about the myriad consequences and effects of various courses of action. There are people trying to do this, including folks with the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation and with the National Issues Forums.  Be we need more spaces for deliberation, especially online.

View Town Hall Democracy on Noelle’s site, or read over the re-post at http://ncdd.org/1717.

“Why have town hall meetings at all?”: August 12th post on Peter Levine’s Blog

Here’s a quote from Peter’s post: “On one hand, there is no good reason to hold the kind of ‘town meetings’ we are used to. That phrase invokes the old New England deliberative forums in which citizens come together to make collective decisions. The reality, however, is a public hearing with a small group of self-selected activists who ask questions one by one. That format is easy to manipulate and likely to turn unpleasant; it rewards strategic behavior rather than authentic dialog; and it reinforces a sense that the politician and citizens are profoundly different. (The politician has responsibility but cannot be trusted; citizens have no power but only a right to express individual opinions.)”  View the post.

“How should you respond to the noisy health reform critics?”: August 11th post by Larry Susskind

Larry Susskind’s August 11th post on his blog, The Consensus Building Approach, includes some practical advice that Congresspeople can easily follow for town hall meetings they’re holding now, based on decades of experience facilitating public dialogue in politically charged situations.

“Letting the People In”: August 12th Article on the American Prospect site

Mark Schmitt, Executive Editor of liberal magazine The American Prospect, posted an article on TAP’s website on the 12th titled Letting the People In: People want their voices heard in the making of policy. But how do politicians figure out which ones to listen to? Although Mark is not a member of NCDD, he attended the recent Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy 2 event I blogged about here. Mark suggests, “For those legislators who really want to understand public opinion on health care and other issues, who want their constituents to be engaged and informed, the solution may lie in creating some new structures for democratic engagement, not the friends-only town hall meetings of the Bush years, but structured meetings in which participants are asked to engage with each other as well as the podium, and to deliberate about questions that are framed in advance.”

Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher is the director and co-founder of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD). Sandy has an M.A. in International Management from SIT Graduate Institute, and also serves as a Research Deputy for the Kettering Foundation. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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We always encourage a lively exchange of ideas, whether online or off. Questions? Please feel free to contact us directly.

  1. Joe Goldman sent in a link to a great article in today's Washington Post titled "When Town Halls Go Viral, There's Sickness in the Air."
    http://thataway.org/20bcfa

    It refers to AmericaSpeaks work and quotes AmericaSpeaks' president, Carolyn Lukensmeyer. I'll add it to the list.

  2. Jim Fishkin (creator of Deliberative Polling) sent me a link to an op-ed he got published in today's New York Times (!). The article is titled Town Halls by Invitation, and it can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/opinion/16fishkin.html.

    I'll add it now. Congratulations, Jim!

  3. Peter Levine says:

    This is an amazing collection that testifies to a strengthening field. Thanks for creating it!

  4. Thanks so much, Peter. It's nice to see you commenting on the NCDD blog!

  5. Bill Potapchuk just sent this to the NCDD listserv…

    Here's a great piece called "How to break up town brawls" on the USA Today blogs. I love the tagline: "There’s a way to have a civil and informative dialogue that’s more Charlie Rose than Jerry Springer."

    It's basically a conversation between conservative columnist Cal Thomas and liberal Democratic strategist Bob Beckel, who are longtime friends.

    They make a lot of the same initial points people in this community have been making in their op-eds and blog posts, but stop short of suggesting formats that are dialogic, deliberative, or truly innovative in any way.
    http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2009/08/column-how

  6. Carrie says:

    Hi Sandy,

    Anita Fonte also had the abbreviated version of your article published in the Arizona Daily Star. Check it out here: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/306183.

    Thanks,
    Carrie

  7. Nancy Thomas, Director of The Democracy Imperative, sent out a missive to her network a week or so ago on the town hall situation. You can view it at http://www.unh.edu/democracy/pdf/E-News/Aug%2011%202009….

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