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Editorial Prepared for Adaptation by National Issues Forums Institute

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.

Response to Sen. Edwards’ speech this past Saturday endorsing a Citizen Congress
Monday, October 15 2007

This past Saturday in a campaign speech in Keene, New Hampshire, Sen. John Edwards unveiled his “One Democracy” initiative. Several elements of that speech deserve broad attention and not just from those who support Sen. Edwards’ candidacy. We should judge candidates by the same standards we use for physicians. From both, we expect first an accurate diagnosis of what’s wrong—particularly when the symptoms indicate a serious disease—and then a compelling and realistic prescription about what should be done. On both scores, Sen. Edwards deserves high marks, especially in his endorsement of a deliberative Citizen Congress as a means of inviting the public back into the policy process.

First, regarding Edwards’ assessment of the problem this nation faces: Reiterating the message that “The American people are sick and tired of business as usual,” Edwards’ speech underlined the severity of the problem. Recent polls provide a measure of public dissatisfaction. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a 33 percent approval rating for President Bush, a new low, and an even lower 29 percent approval rating for Congress. A July CBS News/NYT poll showed that only about 24 percent of the public is inclined to trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time”—a sharp decline from 55% percent registered in 2001 soon after September 11.

There is also widespread concern about legislative gridlock regarding some of the nation’s pressing concerns—America’s role in Iraq and the Middle East generally, the future of the healthcare system, the federal debt, and other issues. At a time when many are convinced that the nation is moving in the wrong direction, the most revealing indicator of what’s wrong is that most Americans feel they’re shut out of the political process. A March 2007 poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that only 34 percent of Americans agree that “government cares about what people like me think.”

These are signs of a deep and pervasive problem. In Sen. Edwards’ words, most Americans are “sick and tired” of business as usual. We have no way to wrestle with issues of grave concern—jobs, taxes, healthcare, Iraq—and no way to express our considered views about them. Most elected officials show little indication that they’re willing to listen to the public after the elections are over. This is a broken model of politics. To fix it, we need fresh thinking and bold measures—above all, new ways of involving the public.

Turning to his prescription about what should be done, Sen. Edwards’ “One Democracy Initiative” is a proposal to “return Washington to regular people.” It involves a three-pronged approach, which would reduce the influence of lobbyists, among other measures. The most notable feature is Edwards’ proposal to take the public’s deliberative voice seriously by asking a million citizens to participate in biennial Citizen Congresses. As Edwards describes them, they would consist of “national town hall meetings where regular Americans tackle issues together.”

In his endorsement of deliberative forums, Sen. Edwards mentioned several projects that have given citizens a voice in community solutions, including deliberative forums in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He might also have mentioned what we have done here in [town name], in a series of forums—conducted as part of the nationwide National Issues Forums network—on topics that include [the public debt, other recent forum topics].

These deliberative forums, which have been a regular part of this community’s civic life over the past [how many] years, are hard work and they are not a cure-all. But they do make a difference and they’re different from most public conversations. These nonpartisan forums focus on issues and common concerns, not personalities or party differences. We don’t necessarily reach agreement about what should be done. But these forums do identify common concerns and common values—no small achievement at a time when legislatures are gridlocked, and few people in elective office are able to bridge partisan differences.

On some issues, these local deliberations have been eye opening and horizon expanding. On other issues, the forums help people to move beyond a narrow sense of self-interest to a more inclusive view of common interests and common goals. In doing so, they have created openings for broadly acceptable public solutions—common ground for public acting.

The National Issues Forums network as a whole, which has been in place for 27 years, has involved hundreds of thousands of people in communities across the country. It provides a rejoinder to those who dismiss public deliberation as impractical and unrealistic—something that most Americans seem to have neither the time nor the inclination to take seriously. If you want to understand the value of deliberative meetings, talk to the people who have taken part in our community forums. The NIF experience bears out the hope that something like the Citizen Congress that Sen. Edwards has endorsed is realistic and long overdue. It is about time national candidates recognize that public deliberation deserves a prominent place on any list of prescriptions about how to fix the political system.

In Sen. Edwards’ proposal, the Citizen Congress would link town hall meetings in various communities, creating a different kind of public conversation in which various proposals and policies would be discussed, along with their costs and consequences. As long as public officials pay serious attention to what comes out of these forums, that’s a step in the right direction. But it’s only a first step. If local forums don’t engage people in serious deliberation, it could amount to little more than a high-tech opinion poll.

At a time of legislative gridlock when the public feels little confidence in its leaders, and most people are convinced that they are shut out of the policy process, it’s high time for new initiatives that involve the public in many ways. The National Issues Forums network has been in business for more than a quarter century. This is no longer a start-up enterprise or a shaky experiment. It is a model that works, a means of engaging citizens in real discussions about serious public concerns. Let’s build on this success story to restore the public to its rightful place in public life. Sen. Edwards’ initiative is a step in the right direction. But it’s just one step toward recognizing what needs to be done if we are to give citizens an authentic voice in the debate about America’s future.

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