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Guidance for Writing Op-Eds on Edwards Proposal

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.

Joe Goldman from AmericaSpeaks sent this extraordinarily helpful message out to those considering writing op-eds…

Background on the Situation

This week, a unique opportunity has arisen for people in the citizen engagement field to collaborate with one another and raise awareness about the need to provide the public with a greater voice in the governance process. If we are successful, it may serve as a precedent for creating an ongoing public communications network for the citizen engagement field.

The purpose of the memorandum is to offer guidance for individuals who have expressed interest in writing an op-ed or blog post to take advantage of a major candidate for President calling for regular national discussions.

The Facts

Former Senator Edwards will unveil a government reform agenda as part of his Presidential campaign. Among his proposals for government reform, Senator Edwards will call for the creation of a Citizen Congress that will on an annual or biannual basis convene one million Americans in national discussions on issues of high public concern. The Citizen Congress will offer our nation’s leaders with advisory opinions on the challenges facing our country and the trade-offs among different solutions.

The current plan is for this speech to be made on Saturday in Keene, NH. As is true with anything on a campaign, this could change at any point. Op-eds and blog posts should be targeted to immediately follow the speech.

Linking the Announcement to Your Message

It is up to you to write about whatever key message you would like. In general, our intent is not to write about the candidate, but to use the announcement as an opportunity to talk about the importance of involving the public in policy making. To help jog your thinking, here are examples of ways that you can frame the announcement and link to your message:

• Across the globe, public leaders have begun advocating new means of involving citizens in governance. [quick references to Canada, Britain, France, Venezuela, etc.] Now, finally, a candidate in the United States has followed suit…

• An idea is percolating up in America–the idea that citizens should have a greater role in making public policy. It’s been tried and tested boldly in communities across the country [possible local reference here]. Now, a Presidential candidate has picked up its scent and has declared it’s time to move these ideas to the center of the American process of self-government. John Edwards has declared …

• In the crowded Democratic primary, candidates are looking for ways to distinguish themselves in a field where policy positions often match up quite closely. John Edwards may have found a way to set himself apart by being the first to call for …

From there, you could simply say “it’s about time,” “here’s what he proposes,” and “here’s why this direction of engaging the public is important.”

Sample Messages about Engaging the Public in National Discussions

It is up to you to write about whatever message you would like. Here are examples of messages with regard to the value of national discussions. However, you may choose to focus on local civic engagement or other important topics that are vital to your work.

1. Challenge: We Need to Rebuild the Public’s Trust in Our Democratic Institutions

– The American public no longer trusts its leaders to do what is right. People do not see their values reflected in Washington and have lost faith in the institutions that are supposed to represent them.

— According to a July 2007 CBS News/NYT Poll, the percentage of Americans who think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” has declined steadily from its peak after September 11th from 55% in 2001 to 24% in 2007. Similarly, a CNN/USA Today/Gallop Poll in January 2006 found that 32% of people trusted government to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time,” compared to 60% in October 2001.

— In a March 2007 poll by The Pew Charitable Trusts, only 34% of Americans said that they believe government “cares about what people like me think.”

– Special interest groups have come to dominate our political system. By flooding the capital with paid lobbyists and flooding the air waves with one-sided advertisements, special interest groups prevent our nation’s leaders from finding common ground and working in the public interest.

— There is no shortage of examples of critical public issues on which leaders have been unable to find agreement to support the common good of the nation. One can look back to the Clinton Health Care Plan in 1994 – a time in which the public believed something needed to be done to fix the nation’s health care system – in which special interest groups manipulated the system and prevented action from taking place. A national consensus will help to provide leaders with a mandate to act.

– 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 interest of the nation.

— See The Broken Branch by Mann and Ornstein

2. We Need to Look Beyond Elections to Fix Our Democracy. Democracy is More Than a Spectator Sport.

– On the issues of highest public concern – Iraq, taxes, health care, jobs – Americans have no formal way to wrestle with the choices facing policy makers and let their preferences be known.

— All to often, when we talk about fixing our democracy, we focus on elections: campaign finance reform, redistricting, and policies to increase voter turnout. People need a voice beyond elections. Special interest groups don’t just try to influence elections. They pay lobbyists to influence decision making the other 364 days of the year and spend millions of dollars to shape public opinion outside of the election cycle.

3. 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 foster consensus and encourage people to focus on solutions for the common good. Rather than just talking with their neighbors, citizens respond to the opinions and views of people from across the country. Together, they seek to identify the common priorities, not of a city or a state, but of the American public as a whole.

– 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 make the public less subject to manipulation. By providing the public with a chance to learn about an issue and struggle through the tough policy trade-offs involved, deliberation would increase resistance to spin by special interests.

4. In Local Communities Across the Nation and Countries Around the World, Citizens Are Already Playing a Role in the Policy Making Process

– Insert examples as needed

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