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Town Hall Op-Ed in Manhattan Mercury

Here’s a good example of an adaptation and elaboration of the NCDD Upgrading the Way We Do Politics article. The following article, prepared by the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University, appeared as a column in The Manhattan Mercury on Sunday, August 23, and it has been submitted to several other papers across Kansas…

Town hall meetings held on healthcare legislation across the country are exploding with emotion, frustration, and conflict.  Citizens are showing up in throngs to protest and shout down their legislators and fellow citizens with whom they disagree.   It seems America has taken yet one more step in degrading another opportunity to talk civilly and thoughtfully with one another about issues so vital to our country’s future.

Part of citizen frustration is understandable as there has been little opportunity for the public to engage and deliberate on the tough choices we are facing in health care reform. The public has a right to be upset with their lack of ability to influence the health care reform options. The “town halls” – where much of the controversy is occurring – conjures up images of townsfolk gathering in some local community building and working together to hash out the latest social and political issue. But unlike this idyllic image of town halls, today’s typical “town hall meeting” is a place where politicians come to promote some policy that’s already well down the road.  These meetings aren’t organized to allow citizens the opportunity to discuss the issue in depth or provide any meaningful input on policy options.  Like public hearings, these town hall meetings tend to largely be gripe sessions, where the most passionate and bold attendees take turns giving three-minute speeches–usually after enduring long speeches from the elected officials at the front of the room.  The real disappointment here is while extreme partisans on both sides find many opportunities to tell us what they think, most citizens lack safe spaces and opportunities to ask honest questions, listen thoughtfully to one another, or explore disagreements on tough policy issues.

The thing is, the public really wants to, and is quite capable of, dealing with the tough choices and the inevitable tradeoffs facing us in healthcare reform. During the fall of 2008 and the Spring of 2009, Kansas State University’s Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy (ICDD) held eight health care forums across Kansas.  We brought together a diverse representation of the public, gave them adequate background information, highlighted the pros and cons on various policy options, and created a safe, democratic space where they could talk. These citizens deliberated, discussed and disagreed.  They eventually came to collective choices on the priorities they really wanted for health care reform.  ICDD then took the results of these health care deliberations to a Kansas Health Care Hearing.  We brought together a panel of five health care experts – a Kansas State Senator and representatives of the Kansas Health Policy Authority, the Kansas Health Institute, and the Kansas Hospital Association – to listen and respond to the results of our citizen health care deliberations.  These experts then provided their thoughts on issues like: how to provide and pay for health insurance; how to balance the costs and coverage for those who engage in unhealthy behaviors; how can small businesses provide coverage and survive; and how to provide coverage to the elderly and to children.  The results of our citizen deliberations and our expert dialogue can currently be seen on K-State Channel 8 and regional public television across central and western Kansas.

A key founding principle of our democracy is that the voice of the people should have an influence on public policy, both at election time and in-between those elections.  We must honor the rights of citizens to speak up, either in support or in opposition to public policy.  However, in a political atmosphere where partisans are urged to rattle speakers, disrupt public meetings, and shout down their opponents, political cynicism spikes, political trust declines, and the political center further withdraws from political participation.  This behavior threatens to unravel our social fabric and weaken our democracy.

A vibrant and inclusive democracy calls for opportunities for people from different views and backgrounds to get together, listen to one another, and find ways to move forward on the significant issues of the day.  There needs to be a safe place for our citizens to come together in rich deliberation and community problem solving. We know that these kinds of meetings are possible. For close to two decades, a growing network of people and organizations across the United States has been bringing all kinds of people into meaningful discussions on contentious public issues.  Kansas State University’s ICDD is part of this network.  Since its creation five years ago, ICDD has held productive community dialogues on immigration, land use reform, NBAF, health care, energy policy and the mission of our public schools.  We have found that it is possible to have conversations where every voice is heard, where emotions don’t have to be checked at the door, and where elected officials agree to listen and then respond to what they are hearing.  We invite you to join us in creating a stronger democracy. 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 is meaningful health care reform at stake, but the health of our democracy is as well.

David E. Procter, Director
Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy
202 Ahearn
Kansas State University
(785) 532-6868, dprocter@ksu.edu

Erika Mason-Imbody, Project Coordinator
Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy
202 Ahearn
Kansas State University
(785) 532-6868, erika@k-state.edu

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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