Archives for category: politics

Many ways to express citizenship, an incomplete list (add your ideas):

  • Read reputable news outlets
  • Examine the sources of news that you come into contact with
  • Read news outlets you disagree with
  • Read LOCAL news outlets
  • Talk with a friend or family member about their views; share yours
  • Attend civic and community meetings
  • Vote
  • Encourage others to vote
  • Protest
  • Protect others from injustice when you see it
  • Participate in dialogue programs on issues
  • Serve on a jury
  • Sign a petition
  • Discuss current events with your family
  • Read candidate web sites
  • Write opinion pieces and letters to news outlets
  • Start a blog to express your views
  • Volunteer as a poll worker on election day
  • Attend local government or school board meetings
  • Sign up to participate on a volunteer board or commission in local government
  • Run for office against someone whom you disagree with, or for an open seat
  • Learn about how your local government works
  • Donate funds to a candidate or issue
  • Talk to neighbors about a local problem or issue
  • Work with neighbors to improve local conditions
  • Volunteer for a political candidate or issue campaign
  • Start or participate in Neighborhood Watch
  • Attend local civic commission meetings

There are so many ways to act with others for the good of our local areas, our states, and our nation.

Also see: Civics ‘TQM’

Some of my friends may have heard me refer to “machinebrain” and “gardenbrain” in conversation over the past few months.

This idea is taken from Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s The Gardens of Democracy, in which they argue that a new way of thinking about social systems needs to be developed. Liu and Hanauer contrast a mechanistic “machinebrain” way of thinking with an organic “gardenbrain” way of thinking.

I have found the idea to be helpful to me in understanding and sorting the mindsets of people with whom I am talking. I also discuss this in another piece about “the apparatus.”

A “machinebrain”-oriented person will often talk about tools, processes, and techniques, and they will often see deliberative politics in these terms. A “gardenbrain” person sees things as emergent, growing.

While there are important benefits to each way of seeing things, the latter is more in line with an “ecological” view of community politics. I have found it very hard to convey my understanding of politics to people who have a “machinebrain” outlook. The terms I use become assimilated. “Yes, I get it. I do that too!” they may say, but it is clear we are talking about different things. They think I am talking about process. The frequency with which I encounter “machinebrain” is sometimes surprising to me. I mentally seek out “gardenbrain” people, because I feel like we have the most in common intellectually, at least when it comes to talking about politics.

As I reflect, however, I have come to believe that the “gardenbrain” perspective is also not quite apt. It still assumes that the whole thing can be managed somehow.

Here is how Liu and Hanauer describe the two mindsets:

“Machinebrain sees the world and democracy as a series of mechanisms-clocks and gears, perpetual motion machines, balances and counterbalances. Machinebrain requires you to conceive of the economy as perfectly efficient and automatically self-correcting. Machinebrain presuppose stability and predictability, and only grudgingly admits the need for correction. Even the word commonly used for such correction- “regulation”- is mechanical in origin and regrettable connotation.

“Gardenbrain sees the world and democracy as an entwined set of ecosystems-sinks and sources of trust and social capital, webs of economic growth, networks of behavioral contagion. Gardenbrain forces you to conceive of the economy as man-made and effective only if well-constructed and well cared-for. Gardenbrain presupposes instability and unpredictability, and thus expects a continuous need for seeding, feeding, and weeding ever-changing systems. To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend. It is to accept responsibility for nurturing the good growth and killing the bad. Tending and regulating thus signify the same work, but tending frames the work as presumptively necessary and beneficial rather than as something to be suffered.

“Machinebrain treats people as cogs: votes to be collected by political machines; consumes to be manipulated by marketing machines; employees to be plugged into industrial machines. It is a static mindset of control and fixity, and is the basis of most of our inherited institutions, from schools to corporations to prisons.

“Gardenbrain sees people as interdependent creators of dynamic world: our emotions affect each other; our personal choices cascade into public patterns, which can be shaped but rarely controlled. It is a dynamic mindset of influence and evolution, of direction without control, and is the basis of our future.

“Machinebrain allows you to rationalize atomized selfishness and a neglect of larger problems. It accepts social ills like poverty, environmental degradation, and ignorance as the inevitable outcome of an efficient marketplace. It is fatalistic and reductionist, treating change as an unnecessary and risky deviation from the norm.

“Gardenbrain recognizes such social ills and the shape of our society as the byproduct of man-made arrangements. It is evolutionary and holistic, treating change as the norm, essential and full of opportunity. It leads you to acknowledge that human societies thrive only through active gardening.”

In their understanding of “gardenbrain,” the gardener is still in charge. She or he must work organically, with the natural inclinations of the elements of the garden — but she or he is still the gardener. They are tending.

I would say I see community as broader than that. It is not a garden, but a forest. Larger than any one gardener is likely to affect singlehandedly.

b99bc0a942c8981ac8bd837cab9f9544I am beginning to think of this approach as “forestbrain.” And I think of the relationship that someone might have to such a forest as akin to how a ranger thinks of her or his role. In a forest, there are some built areas (a fire ring at a campsite), and there may be some areas that need tending (a denuded meadow being brought back) — but the overall thing is larger than any of these individual efforts. It is an inherently open system that reacts dynamically and on which people may act not so much from outside but from within.

 

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am a program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

Even though it has “foundation” in its name, Kettering is best described as a “research institute.” (We aren’t a grant maker.) As a program officer, I am responsible for one or more portfolios of research. This begs the question: What does Kettering research?

We study how democracy can best work as it should.

By “democracy,” we do not mean a particular mechanism for choosing leaders (contested elections), nor popular representation necessarily. These are things that may be in place in a democracy, but they do not themselves equal democracy. Our definition is simple:

Democracy is a system of governance in which power comes from citizens who generate their power by working together to combat common problems—beginning in their communities—and by working to shape their common future, both through what they do with other citizens and through their institutions.

A shorthand for this that I use is “citizens working collectively to shape their future.” Note that this definition implies that the democracy we study can in fact take place in all manner of government regimes. It is human-scaled, expressed in communities, and fundamentally implicates people acting together in such a way that they recognize the power they have to address shared problems.

So that is the principle we are operating from. Here is how we describe the actual research:

Kettering’s research is intentionally citizen-focused. We do research on: how people become engaged as citizens and make sound decisions; how they can work together to solve problems and educate their children, beginning in their communities; and how a productive citizenry can engage governmental and civic institutions as those institutions attempt to engage them.

So we have three main areas that we are exploring: How citizens make decisions together; how people in communities work together; and how citizens and institutions engage with one another.

We never do our research on citizens, communities, or institutions — always with someone. Some group or coalition is experimenting with changing how they work so as to increase the control citizens might have over their future. They share with us what they are learning, and we share with them what we have learned over the years of exploring these questions with a wide variety of others. So our work takes place in a learning exchange.

 

I study democratic politics and I mean both of those terms in the most fundamental way possible. I understand “politics” to mean “the way people who live in a place make choices and address shared problems and opportunities, where there are disagreements about what should be done.” And by “democracy” I mean “people collectively deciding how to exert control over their future.” In this way of understanding, democratic politics is not the same thing as “organizing.” Politics involves tension. Something is political if there are tensions about what we should do.

Note that this is a much deeper sense of both words than the ones in which they are normally used. For instance, “elections” are not themselves democracy. They are a mechanism for choosing representative leaders. And having representative leaders is a strategy for acting democratically. One challenge in studying democratic politics in the way I describe is that it can be hard to see — or perhaps better put, other related things are easier to see. In democracies that include elections, you can see elections. You can see how many people vote, for whom, and how open or inclusive the voting is. It is also easy to see institutions such as government. Often, in trying to see and examine democratic politics, these and other easily visible things occlude the whole of politics. But describing and understanding a government is not the same thing as understanding politics. (This is not to say that such institutions are not a part of politics — they are. And they are important. But looking solely at institutional structures provides an incomplete view of politics.)

One level of democratic politics I am quite interested in is the community level — community politics. What does it look like? How can you see it?

One way to see community politics (any politics, really) is to look for evidence that the things that make up politics are happening. And if you are looking to find democratic politics on the level of community, you might look for evidence about how these practices are taking place. So:

  • Where is there evidence of people trying to understand what the problem is?
  • Where is there evidence that people are exploring options?
  • Where is there evidence that people are choosing deliberately from among options of what they might do?
  • Where is there evidence that people are trying to identify resources through which to act?
  • Where is there evidence that they are taking action, and to what extent are these actions complementary or not?
  • Where is there evidence that, seen collectively, the community is learning from its experiences?
A Real Life Example: #Blizzard2016

2016-01-25 11.10.27The area where I live, in a suburb of Washington, DC, recently had an historic blizzard. Thirty-five inches of snow were dumped in my neighborhood. The snow removal resources of every government entity, and indeed of every business, were severely taxed. My street is a dead-end that inclines away from the nearest through-route, which itself is not a major street. So on dig-out day, everyone on the block was pretty much stuck, and we weren’t going to get plowed out for quite some time.

As people do, we all began our digs. And here is where we began to see politics.

Just responding to a crisis is often not really that political — it is clear what must be done and there is no real choice to be made. You just do what must be done. But this was not quite a crisis and it was not clear exactly how we should move forward. We each had our own interests: we wanted our driveways cleared and to be able to reach the outside world. But “reaching the outside world” was also a collective interest. And there were some elderly neighbors who did not have any means of moving their own snow — what should be done about their situation?

Furthermore, we all had varying resources available, and some of those were communal. Most of us had snow shovels and at least one person willing to use it. But some of us also had small snowblowers. One neighbor had actually purchased a very large snow blower a few years back, and regularly made it available to neighbors. Furthermore, eventually we would get plowed out by the city.

In figuring out how to respond collectively to this problem, we were doing politics in exactly the way described above. Our approach was to begin our resources — which is often how it happens on a community level. Who has what? What can we use? The neighbor’s snow thrower could not take care of the whole problem for us, but it was up to the task of clearing sidewalks and helping cars get dug out from under snowdrifts. Some neighbors with four wheel drive trucks went to get gas for the snow thrower, while another truck owner started driving back and forth through a few deep drifts to mush the snow down and make it a little passable. Someone shoveled the elderly neighbors’ drive.

To be clear, this was not “organized” in the way you might imagine. It was loose. It was not like a barn raising. We were mostly tending to our tasks, but we were doing so mindful of the whole. We were acting in complementary ways.

During this work, we stopped occasionally and assessed what the problem was we were tackling. (Again, informally.) Is it that we all had our cars stuck? Or was the problem that we couldn’t even walk anywhere safely? Or was the problem that some of our vulnerable neighbors were truly up a creek? Was it that we had not prepared well enough in advance? Did someone leave their car in a place that made it worse for everybody?

Similarly, we addressed our options. Should we unearth cars first? Sidewalks? Should we just wait for the city, as they would eventually come by? Should we think about buying a small tractor with a snow blower, and splitting the cost, for future snowfalls? We decided to try to clear all the sidewalks and driveways, and somevpeople would go beyond that individually (for instance I dug out a separate parking space for myself).

We coordinated what we would do. Some neighbors dug a space for one car, and then were able to use that “extra” parking spot as a staging area while digging out other cars. It was arranged who would do what: snow blow, dig, drive. We didn’t all agree and we had to work through tensions between the various possibilities. For example, everyone who had parked on the street wanted their car dug out first — but only one or two could get freed up that first day. Though we all wanted our own vehicle moving, the work van of a neighbor who needed it for his livelihood took priority.

Over the years we had also learned what some of the best things to do for our particular stretch of the street in big snowfalls was, and we added to that learning this time. Some of us, acting on previous learning, had parked their cars up the street, in the road at the top of our small hill. The reasoning was not to get stuck. But this snowfall was so large this turned into a liability — when the city plow finally came, the cars that had not been unstuck yet were really socked in under almost insurmountable walls of gunk. We agreed that in future the best call would be to keep all cars in our driveways so city plows could plow curb to curb.

None of this was formal. It unfolded over the course of the day, bit by bit, and you could see it in a building series of conversations between different neighbors. All very casual. Politics does not have to be serious, even when it is solving serious problems.

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[Updated (twice!) to fix some typos and clarify some points.]

2014-11-07 10.20.08-1When I arrived at my office this morning and saw the cover of The Wall Street Journal, I knew I had to write a post about the difference between the dominant political narratives of issues, and the more nuanced way that the public sees the same issues — in this case, having to do with immigration. The president and the speaker are at loggerheads on this already (or still, depending on how you look at it). Just those juxtaposed images tell the story of exactly the kind of political stalemate that Americans are incensed about.

This from my post at Inside Public Judgment:

Kettering research over decades suggests that the way difficult issues like immigration are framed by policy leaders and experts is often at odds, or at least out of step with, the way in which people see those issues. Where the dominant political discourse frequently sees conflict, people in communities are wrestling with tensions among the things they hold valuable. This is not a question of one solution versus another. Instead, the question individuals must wrestle with is, what am I willing to give up—and under what conditions.

On immigration, Kettering research suggests that people see this issue in a more nuanced way than the binary amnesty-vs.-tough-borders way in which the issue has been portrayed in the media. Their concerns center on a range of things that are held commonly valuable by all—our self-image as a welcoming nation, personal and national security, and the reality seen by many that our prosperity depends on immigrants. These concerns became the basis for the options in a guide for public deliberation that Kettering prepared for the National Issues Forums Institute, Immigration in America: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis? Three options are outlined, each rooted in a different view of the problem:

1. Welcome New Arrivals. A rich combination of diverse cultures is what defines us as a people. We must preserve our heritage as a nation of immigrants by shoring up our existing system while also providing an acceptable way for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living here to earn the right to citizenship.

2. Protect Our Borders. Failure to stem the tide of illegal immigration undermines our national security, stiffens competition for scarce jobs, and strains the public purse. We need tighter control of our borders, tougher enforcement of our immigration laws, and stricter limits on the number of immigrants legally accepted into the country.

3. Promote Economic Prosperity. To remain competitive in the 21st-century global economy, we need to acknowledge the key role that immigrants play in keeping the US economy dynamic and robust. This option favors a range of flexible measures, such as annual adjustments to immigration quotas, that put a priority on our economic needs.

The difficulty of immigration lies in the tensions between these things. One reason this issue is so intractable is that these tensions must be worked through by the public before there can be any durable policy solution.

Read the whole piece here.

Friends know that at the Kettering Foundation we recently started a new blog called Inside Public Judgment, devoted to sharing what we are learning about framing issues for public deliberation — a behind-the-scenes look at various aspects of developing issue guides. My latest piece is posted, which outlines some of the false starts we made as we began development of a recent popular issue guide called Political Fix: How do we get American Politics Back on Track?

An excerpt from the post:

IPJ-Political-Fix-art-main-hedThis guide went through a longer evolution than most, as we at Kettering tried to make sure we fulfilled one of the key things we have learned about framing issues for public deliberation: it is critical to start where the public starts.

For many issues, this is easier said than done. The more we know (or learn) about a particular topic, often the more expert-driven our views become about what would make a good solution. This is natural. In the case of Political Fix, we initially began with a slightly different topic in mind: money in politics.  Because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and the record amounts of money spent in recent elections, we have heard pundits discussing money in politics in op-eds and on Sunday morning talk shows for some time. But when we held research forums with ordinary citizens to see how they talked about the issue, we discovered two important things:

    • People said they see the issue of “money in politics” as much broader than simply questions about campaign finance—they believe that limiting the conversation in this way leaves too much untouched. They are sophisticated enough to believe that money plays a part throughout the current political system.
    • Just as important, people said that there are more fundamental problems in our political system than just money and power. They were interested in a conversation that goes beyond money and addresses more basic questions.

It was clear, in looking at these results, that an issue guide about the broader problem of American politics in general—and what to do to fix its current ills—could be widely useful to citizens.

Read the full post here, which describes more about the framework we ultimately developed.

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am at program officer at the Kettering Foundation. Kettering is a research organization that studies ways to make democracy work as it should — meaning to place citizens more at the center of politics rather than on the periphery.

One of the roles I play at Kettering is executive editor of our issue guide series. These are publications we develop that present difficult public issues in frameworks that are designed to spark and support public deliberation. These guides (which we primarily develop in partnership with the National Issues Forums) are used by all sorts of organizations around the nation as well as globally. Our issue guides are some of our most visible publications at Kettering, and for some time we have been trying to make the ways in which we develop them more transparent. A great deal of research goes into them, and we thought that giving some visibility into this research, on an ongoing basis, might be useful to others.

And so we have established a new blog designed to shine light on the kinds of things that go into our thinking as we develop materials to support public deliberation — the research, naming, framing, and more. The blog is called Inside Public Judgment and we will be updating it on a regular basis.

My first post has just been published, which outlines some of the main starting points that seem important to keep in mind when thinking about deliberative politics. Here’s an excerpt:

New Blog at the Kettering Foundation

New Blog at the Kettering Foundation

Some (Not All) Starting Points for Deliberative Politics:

  • One aim of democracy is for citizens to have a stronger hand in controlling their own future.
  • There are a number of “problems of democracy”—things that get in the way of democracy functioning (that is, things that get in the way of people taking control of their future).
  • Politics can be described as a set of practices that can respond to these problems.
  • There are different kinds of problems that face people in communities. Some are technical and can be solved unilaterally (e.g., how to build a new jail), but others are much more difficult because they involve tensions between things held valuable that must be worked through (e.g., what we should do about a growing sense of personal vulnerability in our community).
  • Some of the things we all hold deeply valuable (not the only things) are often in tension: “security,” “fairness,” and “freedom.”
  • We don’t “solve” such problems—we need to negotiate our provisional solutions together, and we do this repeatedly over time. We do this by weighing options for action against what we hold valuable and against likely consequences—this is deliberation.
  • Naming in public terms and framing for deliberation are powerful ways to make it more likely (and possible) for citizens to weigh these things held valuable.

Read the full article here.

I’m in the middle of doing one of my favorite activities, something I’ve been involved in since the late 1990’s. It’s the Candidate Training Program, run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

1533885_10152639661618438_164317675_nI was a part of the design team for this program and have been involved in different ways every since. It’s a multipartisan group (D, R, I) of people who are running for their first political office. Over the course of four days, some of the top political consultants in Virginia share the nuts and bolts of running campaigns from the standpoint of planning, direct mail, fundraising, media relations, crisis management, and more. It’s top-drawer advice and is very effective: roughly a third of alumni have gone on to win races, an astronomical statistic considering that most first time candidates lose.

Here’s what makes the program different from other candidate training programs, though: It is built around ethical decision making. The design of the program is meant to elicit thoughtful reflection by the candidates on what they feel their relationship with the public ought to be. We open with an in-depth discussion of ethical decision-making principles, and then check in repeatedly throughout the weekend to unpack what the experts are saying, relating it to the kinds of relationships the candidates are trying to foster.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts from and about these sessions. Some of the notable ones are:

  1. Resistance” — things I’ve noticed candidates just don’t want to do . . . but must.
  2. Oh, D.E.A.R.” — Tips on campaign crisis management from a real pro.
  3. Free Advice For Candidates” — Just a compendium of tips I’ve heard the experts tell first-time candidates over the years.
  4. On The Lam” — A scenario for discussion that I developed and distribute, based loosely on true events. 
  5. All The News That Fits” — Another ethics scenario, again based on true events.

 

A dozen years ago, I was completing my stint leading a national election-ethics project, encouraging candidates to negotiate, sign, and abide by “clean campaign” pledges. It was, as you might imagine, an uphill battle. I was excited when a group in Toledo, Ohio, picked up the idea on their own and pressed for the 2001 mayoral race — which was getting quite brutal in the context of the times — to adopt such a pledge.

For the weekly newsletter of my organization, the Institute for Global Ethics, I penned a piece titled Toledo, Cradle of Civility, which began:

Great civic movements start in the unlikeliest of places — the front section of the Montgomery bus from which Rosa Parks refused to move, the Sacramento steak house where Mothers Against Drunk Driving first met, Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley where Mario Savio’s filibuster began the Free Speech Movement. To these history may one day allow us to add another: the restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, where a group of citizens met one night last August to discuss what they could do to demand a better quality of political campaign.

After a particularly tense debate between the mayoral candidates, the local daily newspaper, the Toledo Blade, had called on the front-runners (Lucas County treasurer Ray Kest and state representative Jack Ford) to sign a code of conduct to help keep the campaign out of the mud. To the surprise of many observers, they agreed. Brought together by the Toledo League of Women Voters, a group of citizens came together at Mountain Jack’s restaurant on the outskirts of town for the first of many meetings devoted to monitoring the code. Thus was born the Lucas County Citizens Clean Campaign Committee.

It was an effort that succeeded where many thought it would fail. By the end of the campaign, the talk radio hosts who had derided the committee were quoting it, and the Blade would only cover accusations of negative campaigning if the committee had already weighed in.

Since that time, the nascent, local effort has had its ups and downs. The Lucas County Citizens Clean Campaign Committee disbanded in 2004 under the weight of little public notice and other political interests its members wanted to pursue. Campaigns continued to increase in intensity and nastiness. But the Toledo Blade continued the effort after a fashion, calling on every mayoral candidate since then to adopt the pledge, and then holding them to its standards.

So I was delighted when I saw this week’s Blade editorial, calling on the current candidates for mayor to agree to and abide by a pledge:

Screenshot

Click to go to article

As we have done during every Toledo mayoral campaign since 2001, The Blade is publicly challenging the general-election candidates to sign the Clean Campaign Pledge developed by the Institute of Global Ethics, a Maine-based nonpartisan group that promotes ethical behavior and integrity in public and private life.

The voluntary pledge appears on this page. Its language hasn’t changed since the institute composed it 15 years ago, but political campaigns at all levels surely have. They’ve gotten nastier, dirtier, less transparent, more polarized, and much more awash in money for go-for-the jugular TV ads.

Negative campaigning often does more to alienate voters than to educate them. And as the shameful 15-percent turnout for last week’s Toledo primary makes clear, we can’t afford to turn off any more voters.

That’s why this year’s campaign between Mayor Mike Bell and his challenger, City Councilman D. Michael Collins, needs to be civil and respectful — of the candidates as well as of voters’ intelligence. The contenders must focus on issues and ideas, rather than personal insults and toxic attacks.

. . .

In its coverage of this year’s campaign, The Blade will continue to fact-check what the candidates say, whether or not they sign the pledge. If we see bad behavior, we’ll call the candidates on it.

In past campaigns, independent citizens’ groups reviewed candidates’ compliance with the pledge they had signed, and investigated and publicized charges of violations. It would be great if similar watchdogs emerged in the remaining weeks of this campaign, but it’s getting late.

Kudos to The Blade for keeping this effort going. Culture change can be a thankless business and it takes time.

Thank you for my friend and colleague Paula Mirk for passing on the news.

 

 

My main take-away from yesterday’s sound defeat of MItt Romney and many Republican Senate candidates is that the GOP needs to field a “new Republican” candidate in the same way the Democratic Party fielded Bill Clinton. The demographics of the nation are against the current GOP mindset of “traditional conservative values.”

The Democratic Leadership Council set out as its project to drag the Democratic Party to the right a tad, and it succeeded. Clinton (a DLC leader) was able to reinvigorate the party’s prospects.

The Republican Party could do with a similar, serious movement to drag it a bit left.

The emerging power of the Latino vote is just one area that the GOP could theoretically begin to make inroads, if the party could get behind loosening its hard-line stance on immigration. George W. Bush tried to do this, but was unable to seal the deal. He was ahead of his time in that respect.

[UPDATED: Added “A” in the title to remove confusion, thanks to a friend’s advice.]