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Democracy Campaign and Democracy in America Conferences

Republican politician turned “transpartisan” pioneer Joseph McCormick founded the Democracy in America Project (DIAP) in 2003 with community builder Pat Spino. In their quest to find or create “We the People”–a unified whole that includes, respects, and values all American points of view–Joseph and Pat decided to work toward a three-day national civic dialogue event called a We the People National Convention.

As steps toward the Convention, the First (2004) and Second (2005) Conferences on Democracy in America brought together organizational and political leaders from the left, right, and center, as well as experts in public engagement. Held at the Fetzer Institute retreat center in Kalamazoo, Michigan, were groundbreaking demonstrations of cross-spectrum dialogue among small groups of national opinion leaders showing how "democratic" values and "republican" values can indeed be balanced and integrated given a respectful, trust-building process.  A third conference is planned for May 2006.

How the Democracy Campaign Came to Be, and What's Next
(excerpted from the Democracy Campaign website in March 2006)

Pat and I founded the Democracy in America Project (DIAP) in the spring of 2003.  The first step was an inquiry into the "state of our democracy."  We decided to retrace the route of Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835 author of Democracy in America.  We sent out 50 interview requests and got 11 experts and public figures from across the political spectrum to talk to us on camera about the state of freedom, equality, unity, and government by the people in post-9/11 America.  We asked a professional videographer, Terrel Broussard, to join us.  We raised a little money and set out in my jeep to interview Ralph Nader, author Noam Chomsky, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, President of the ACLU Nadine Strossen, President of the NEA Reg Weaver, Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman, Chairman of the American Conservative Union Dave Keene, former Reagan Political Director Lyn Nofziger, Ross Perot, and UVa National Security Law Professor John Norton Moore among others.  The theme that emerged was: in a democracy it is up to "We the People" to secure the values we all, left to right, hold dear.

The obvious question became, "where were We the People?"  The Democratic Party wasn't We the People.  Nor was the Republican Party, nor the Greens, or Libertarians.  No part was We the People.  We the People was all of us, a unified whole that included, respected, and valued all American points of view.  The next obvious question for me was, "how do you create We the People?"  (I have never been one to sit back and blame and complain that "somebody should do something!"  I took this realization personally, as though it were my personal responsibility to help catalyze this non-existent entity into existence.)

In the fall of 2003, Pat and I traveled to Ashland, Oregon to document an "educated experiment in democracy" organized by Jim Rough, author Society's Breakthrough and Tom Atlee, author The Tao of Democracy.  The experiment was to create a symbolic We the People from a small group of randomly selected voters who met for two days in facilitated dialogue and then presented a "declaration" of their will to a community meeting.  It was an amazing beginning, if for no other reason that it pointed to the fact that dialogue and deliberation were the soil out of which healthy democracy grows.

On Christmas Day 2003 after reading an inspiring article by Carolyn Lukensmeyer of America Speaks, David Wick (a friend of Carolyn's) Pat and I decided to plan a three day national civic dialogue for later that year called a We the People National Convention.  A month later Pat and I traveled to Juanita Brown's house (founder, World Café another friend of David Wick's) in the bay area for the launching of Lets Talk America (LTA), a national effort to stimulate widespread community dialogue to help "bridge the divide."  We decided LTA and DIAP had the same vision of political reconciliation through dialogue, only different forms. 

"First Conference on Democracy in America"

As a necessary first step toward creating a credible national civic dialogue that included participants from the left, right and center, we needed national advisors and hopefully the cooperation of national membership organizations from across the spectrum to promote it to their members.  In June 2004 LTA and DIAP co-sponsored the first Conference on Democracy in America, facilitated by Mark Gerzon (chief facilitator, Congressional Bi-Partisan Retreats), hosted by the Fetzer Institute at their beautiful Seasons retreat center.  The event was a ground breaking demonstration of cross spectrum dialogue among a small group of national opinion leaders showing how "democratic" values and "republican" values can indeed be balanced and integrated given a respectful, trust-building process.  The advisory board was formed and a remarkable "Declaration for Dialogue" was signed, but in the end, owing to it being an election year, an insufficient number of membership organization leaders participated for it to be a real seed event for the envisioned national civic dialogue.  We put the national civic dialogue plans on hold.

"Second Conference on Democracy in America"

Following the brutal election of 2004 I was contacted by Joan Blades, co-founder, Moveon.org (who I had asked, but declined to attend the June event) about helping to facilitate a dialogue "with some conservatives."  In January of this year I went to the bay area and went for a walk in the park with Joan to talk about what she had in mind and the format for the dialogue.  At that time, knowing she was a trained mediator herself, I gave her a copy of Bill Ury's book The Third Side (Mark Gerzon introduced me to Bill during a previous trip to Boulder, CO.)  A month or so later she contacted me again saying she had read the book and thought she wanted to help with a left-right membership organization leadership conference.

That May, Pat and I went to visit Joan again and I asked MoveOn to consider co-sponsoring a Second Conference on Democracy in America.  The next week I went to Washington to meet with Dave Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU) to ask him the same thing.  Once I got these two to agree my plan was to approach Grover Norquist, President of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform (ATR).  Dave, Joan and I entered a two-month email dialogue about the purpose of this next conference, issues of mutual concern to be addressed, and ground rules. In August, Roberta Combs, President of the Christian Coalition decided to co-sponsor the Second Conference along with MoveOn.org.  From there the conference organization became easier.

Moving forward…

There are now plans for issue based Third and Fourth Conferences on Democracy in America in 2006, both among a trans-partisan set of national leaders.  We are also organizing a conference in spring 2006 called "Listening to America: Catalyzing Trans-Partisan Citizen Engagement at Scale" among 24 experts on large scale citizen engagement combined with a trans-partisan group of leaders and membership directors of national citizen networks.

Also see:

– Tom Atlee's take on the first gathering, "A Personally Transformational Encounter of Left and Right," at http://www.co-intelligence.org/polarization-Fetzer.html

– Mark Satin's account of the gathering, "At last, a movement that would have us listen to and learn from each other," at http://www.radicalmiddle.com/x_fetzer_conference.htm

Resource Link: www.democracycampaign.org

Joseph McCormick, Co-Founder


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