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Op-Ed by Kim Pearce for San Francisco Chronicle Open Forum

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.

Almost everyone I speak with feels the way I do—our current political process for discussing crucial and complex issues and arriving at wise and sound solutions is broken. Take any controversial domestic or international issue and you will find the inability of congress to act. Citizens are left mostly on the sidelines watching our politicians battle it out without a way to effectively contribute to the national conversation.

Finally, a Presidential candidate has recognized the importance of “thinking outside of our current political box.” On Saturday, October 13, Presidential candidate John Edwards proposed the “One Democracy Initiative: Returning Washington to Regular People.” Among other things, Edwards is calling for the creation of a Citizen Congress that would convene one million Americans on a biannual basis to discuss important national issues. Sounds improbable? Fortunately, we have success stories of just this kind of citizen engagement in countries such as Canada, Australia, and Denmark. Sadly, America is not leading the way in involving citizens in important policy discussions.

Why is a proposal like this important? For starters, we need to rebuild the public’s trust in our democratic institutions. Most Americans no longer trust their leaders and we have lost faith in the institutions that are supposed to represent us. Time and time again, our best, most respected political leaders have lamented that the atmosphere in Congress has changed and that governing has become more about winning and partisanship than representing the best interests of the nation. The issues are too important and the risks too high for this kind of behavior to occur.

Second, we need to look beyond elections to fix our democracy; democracy is more than a spectator sport. Special interest groups don’t just try to influence elections. They spend millions of dollars to influence decision making on Capital Hill the other 364 days of the year. On the issues of highest public concern—Iraq, health care, education, jobs—Americans have no formal way to wrestle with the choices facing policy makers and let their preferences be known. We need a mechanism by which to meaningfully involve the public in these critical issues.

Third, national discussions will strengthen our democracy by providing a voice for the public and identifying common ground positions for which leaders can advocate. National discussions will empower the public and increase the capacity of our governing institutions to address difficult policy issues. Not only does a national discussion identify clear public priorities, it mobilizes citizens behind those priorities. It builds the political will needed to act by creating a constituency behind a given action. National discussions will also make the public much less vulnerable to manipulation. By struggling through the tough policy trade-offs in any decision, deliberation increases the resistance to spin by special interest.

Lastly, in local communities across the nation and in countries around the world, citizens are already playing an effective role in the policy making process. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (www.ncdd.org) is an umbrella organization involving hundreds of groups working across the country and around the world to involve citizens in meaningful dialogue and deliberative processes that can and do make a difference. Over the last fifteen years, these groups have demonstrated that well organized and facilitated events (even those involving thousands of people in remote locations) are possible, that they strengthen democracy and civic engagement, and they make it easier for political leaders to make tough decisions that move the country forward.

The time has come for creative and bold ideas about how to involve the public in the policy issues that affect us all. I applaud John Edwards in his clarion call for a Citizen Congress. I hope the other Presidential candidates take the same kind of bold leadership, recognizing that the current system is broken and that one way to fix it is to provide meaningful opportunities for citizens to be involved in the choices that affect us all.

Kimberly Pearce
Professor, Communication
De Anza College
Cupertino, CA

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