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Trusting the Public

Soon, we need to decide whether we’re willing to trust the public…or not. On the surface, this may seem to be a very simple dilemma to resolve:  “Of course we trust the public!” But…many of our federal and state legislative battles today boil down to this question: how much do we trust the general public?

NCDD 2002 photo of Tom AtleeMoney is choices! When money is systematically taken from the general public, and placed in the hands of our wealthiest capitalists, we’re choosing to trust this elite group with our most important decisions rather than trusting the public at large…clear and simple. The American experiment is at stake…our children’s future is at stake. Yes, we can trust the American public…and it is this long-term trust that still sets us apart from all other nations.

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”
-Thomas Jefferson

In the early days of our new nation, there was a critical conversation about who could be trusted to make decisions…the wealthy elite or the general public. It was a discussion mainly between two huge historic figures in American history…Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton felt the better-educated, privileged classes were in the best position to provide leadership for the new nation…but Jefferson believed in educating all people, so everyone could be trusted with the decisions that shaped their shared, public life. On the surface…Jefferson won this argument. Through the years, however…the disciples of Hamilton have hung on valiantly, and today are poised to win the long-term argument…to the detriment of the general public.

I’ve been facilitating groups in a variety of decision-making settings for 25 years…it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. For the first 10 years, I didn’t have a clue what it was called…I just knew it
was natural, comfortable and effective. Then I learned it had a name…and I began to understand it as a community development practice. Through the years, I have discovered that many tools can be employed, but one foundational perspective is essential: trust the group. Facilitation is not about shaping or directing or correcting the group…it’s about trusting the group’s experience, wisdom, values, intelligence and commitment in their quest for the best possible decision about their mission and actions. If you want to succeed as a facilitator or moderator or small group leader in any process, just remember this: trust the group!

Late last year, the Bush-era tax cuts were extended for everyone. On the surface, this looks very egalitarian and fair, but the wealthiest 1% of American undeniably benefitted most. Money is choices…and this small segment of American society was subsidized with millions of dollars to make many of our most critical, economic choices…rather than the public. Now…the same politicians who gave millions of subsidy dollars to our wealthiest people are saying, ‘We’re broke.’ What a surprise!!?? Their solution to our problems is to take even more choices from the public through huge cuts in social infrastructure spending. Alexander Hamilton would be proud! Obviously, only the wealthy elite can be trusted with our really important economic and political choices…even after this small segment of our society contributed significantly to the implosion of our national and global economy.

Many state governments are also following this Hamiltonian example. A number of states are proposing tax increases and benefit decreases for middle-class and poorer individuals and families…in order to transfer these choices to the already wealthy. So…how are we supposed to interpret this legislative trend? It doesn’t balance any budgets, because the money comes from middle-class and poorer people, and goes directly to already wealthy people. It doesn’t create jobs, because we’ve already seen in previous tax cut strategies that this isn’t effective at all. The only way I can interpret this trend is that the American experiment appears to be failing. These legislative strategies entrust the wealthy elite with more choices…and entrust middle-class and poorer people with less choices. Hamilton would be pleased that important decisions would again be in the hands of those he felt could handle the task best…and Jefferson would be miserable that the rule of a few appears to be winning against the rule of all.

Yes, money is choices…and these aren’t just economic choices. Since the Supreme Court conferred ‘personhood’ on corporations, money translates much more easily into political advocacy where the voices of middle-class and poorer people are all but drowned out. And…without big money for an army of lobbyists at work 24/7, middle-class and poorer people get to seriously influence our political system about once every two years when they vote in a general election. Our current system and trends present adequate evidence that the American people have basically turned away from the opportunities and responsibilities envisioned by Thomas Jefferson…that a free people ‘can be trusted with their own government.’

But…I propose there is still hope! Those of us who do ‘trust the group’ and ‘trust the public’ can take a stand with Jefferson whenever and wherever we see a further erosion of participatory choices in political, economic or social issues. Here’s an inspiring example of Jeffersonian leadership…California Governor Jerry Brown posted a YouTube video about our budget stalemate here in California. His proposal is simple…let voters choose if they are willing to extend some temporary tax increases, instead of balancing the budget with cuts in education and basic services. Here is the link to his YouTube video…watch it and share it. If we truly ‘trust the public,’ we’ll create some new methods in order to bring all voices into the public square.

Governor Brown Checks In With the People of California 3.21.2011

It’s time for some serious soul-searching in our cities, states and nation…about how much we trust ourselves and our neighbors in sustaining the American experiment envisioned by Thomas Jefferson. It’s not just about money…but that’s where it’s being played out now in the most critical ways. I’m optimistic that ‘the public’ can become better informed…and can become more engaged in the critical decisions of our times. I’m not so sure, however, that we will choose to respond anytime soon.

– Craig Paterson

Craig Paterson PicI’m the primary researcher-writer-project manager for the California NIF Network, living and working in Fairfield, CA. I’ve worked in community deliberative efforts for over 30 years…and with National Issues Forums (NIF) deliberative projects for 12 years. Recently, I’ve been investigating and planning deliberative conversations in the virtual world of Second Life…with connections in real-life settings. For all of my ‘Deliberative IDEAS’ blog posts, visit http://delibcaideas.org/

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Craig Paterson
I am the primary researcher/writer/project manager of the 'California NIF Network' for face-to-face deliberative work in communities, and the creator and coordinator of 'Deliberative IDEAS' for online deliberative work, particularly in the virtual world of Second Life. I've done extensive work in deliberative theory and practice, including many issue framing projects.

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