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Op-Ed by Phil Neisser for the Watertown Daily Times (upstate NY)

This article was written as part of the “Democracy Communications Network,” a 2007-2009 project that encouraged leaders in deliberative democracy to periodically write op-eds and blog posts as part of larger, collaborative media campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of quality public engagement. Use the “Democracy Communications Network” tag to see the articles  written in association with this project.

Developing Your Voice

For years politicians have been invoking the voice of the people. “I will listen,” they say. Unfortunately, what they often hear, if they really do listen, is “you seem right to me” or “you did a bad job; you’re out.” As a result, what gets said in political campaigns is often not connected to what happens in government. Policies mostly get made by well-organized, well-funded, elites (some aligned with one party, some with the other), and elections tend to function as little more than legitimacy-conferring, feel-good events.

Perhaps in response, last Saturday presidential candidate John Edwards, speaking in New Hampshire, pledged that he would, if elected, convene a “citizen congress” every two years. Meetings of this kind (also called citizen juries and citizen deliberative councils) are already in use in quite a few American cities and towns and also play a significant role in several European countries. The concept is simple, even if the work is hard: randomly selected citizens gather, deliberate over the course of several days on a pressing issue, and, at the end, issue an advisory opinion of some kind. Facilitators help run the meetings and experts provide testimony, but it’s the citizen “jurors” who run the show.

Such meetings were common in Rochester, N.Y., in the years leading up to World War I. Local public schools turned into “social centers” in the evenings. Hundreds of citizens gathered at each center. They decided what to talk about, invited relevant guests, heard them out, debated, and sent a statement of their position to the City Council.

More recently, in December of 1994, after fatal shootings at two Boston abortion clinics, local leaders asked three pro-life and three pro-choice activists if they would meet and talk to each other, in order to defuse tension. They reluctantly agreed, and, to their surprise, proceeded to meet regularly for almost seven years. None of them changed their minds about abortion, but they did develop a deep respect for each other, and they now describe the experience as life-changing.

This makes sense. “We the people” are, after all, many people, with different ideas, concerns, experiences, and types of knowledge. When we encounter each other, in real discussions, amazing things can and do happen. We develop new understandings across borders and find common ground. We discover profound areas of disagreement, but we get to know each other better. And we come to know more about the issues of the day. As a result, we speak with more authority to politicians. We make democracy more real.

Person to person dialogue about pressing issues also cultivates community and weakens violence, not because people agree, but because they come to recognize each other’s humanity. Such recognition is badly needed in this age of terror, where people (us included) often make other people into abstractions, or declare them evil through and through, as if they’re totally unlike us, as if they’re bad guys in a cartoon.

Unfortunately, cross-border conversations are rare. Instead we tend to talk with people we already agree with. We ask questions and let the leaders do the talking. Or we say our piece at a public hearing, write a letter, yell at somebody, and watch others yell. None of this is bad, but it’s not democratic conversation.

On the other hand, the voice of the people sometimes rises to the occasion. For this to become business as usual, we the people have to take voice lessons. We do not need to sing in harmony, but to make noise with each other and listen to each other. And not just with family, friends, neighbors, and like-minded Internet surfers.

Can Edwards really change anything? Not on his own. But it seems likely that he means business. He’s not the front-runner. He has nothing to gain from being careful. And he clearly has a populist bent. I suggest we take him at his word. I suggest we learn more about what he’s talking about, and we push him on this issue.

Whether or not Edwards is elected, citizen congresses are a good idea, as we need to find ways to communicate better across the various borders that divide us, be they those of philosophy, religion, party, interest, race, or what-have-you. We need, then, to push every candidate and our elected representatives to move us in that direction.

Phil Neisser, Professor of Politics at SUNY Potsdam, is Co-Editor of Tales of the State and author of a forthcoming book about disagreement in America.

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