Archives for category: politics

A good friend writes on Facebook:

Now is not the time, but sometime soon, while the searing memories are still fresh, we must have a candid conversation about how we all will live in the new world climate change is bringing to us. After a disaster, there is a defiant urge to remake what was lost, brick for brick and beam for beam. But the real challenge before us will be not to remake what was, but to make something different. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Stilt Houses

By Flickr user dpu-ucl

I think he’s right . . . and I believe there is a growing consensus that it is time to have a national (or global) conversation about climate change and how to live with it. This conversation would not simply be an argument over what causes it or whether it is occurring. Neither would it be simply about how to stop, or slow it.

It would be about what we should do — how should we live, how can we adapt, how can we mitigate?

This is not a technical conversation, but a political (small p) conversation. That is, it is rooted in what we hold valuable. We have mistaken the problem as something that experts can handle, and because all the answers really cause us to face tensions between things held valuable, we slide into partisan rancor. It’s time to hold a conversation on that level, rooted in our concerns and aspirations.

There is a very interesting piece by Andrew J. Hoffman in the latest Stanford Social Innovation Review on this topic — sorry to say, it may be behind a paywall.

Photo credit: Flickr user dpu-ucl

As some know, I have begun a monthly column published at Ethics Newsline, the flagship publication for the Institute for Global Ethics and one which I helped develop when I worked at that organization. This month’s column is about recent research that sheds light on just how divided we are — in public vs. in private life.

Ethics Newsline

Only Divided Because We Think We Are

It is conventional wisdom among those who worry about the strength of civil society that Americans are polarized due in large part to the rhetoric of the political and media elites. Deep down, we are not so different from our neighbors, but the messages we hear from the news shows and from political podiums is that we must vanquish our foes lest the nation spiral ever downward.

New research by the Pew Research Center adds nuance to that, and provides a troubling counterpoint. According to this new report, Americans have remained moderately divided on important issues when traditional demographic measures are taken into account — race, gender, age, income status, etc. The differences have remained steady at (depending on the marker) between 4 and 14 percent from 1987 to 2012.

During this same period, however, the difference between Democrats and Republicans has climbed rather steadily and steeply, from 10 percent in 1987 to 18 percent today.

Put simply, the parties are pulling farther and farther apart.

And it’s not just the parties. While it is true that people have been abandoning both parties in public opinion surveys, so that “Independent” is now an important designation, the truth is that most Independents lean one way or another.

“Even when the definition of the party bases is extended to include these leaning independents, the values gap has about doubled between 1987 and 2012,” according to the researchers.

That’s the bad news. But there is also good news, mixed with a warning call, when we look more closely. Because it is not truly the case that people are drifting apart when it comes to values — it is our institutions drifting apart, leaving us behind.

(Continued . . .)

Read the full piece here.

I recently was asked to recap some of the research I have been fortunate to be a part of as it relates to Americans’ concerns when they think about the future. I’ve had a chance to review focus group findings (and conduct a few of my own) for a number of projects over the past twelve months, and a number of interesting themes have emerged.

I see seven related and interlocking concerns:

Photo by o5com (Flickr)

The “Deal” Is Falling Apart

What used to be the implicit deal between individuals and the future no longer holds true. It used to be that people had a sense of what they had to do in order to guarantee their economic security moving forward. Working hard, developing a trade or going to college, and playing by the rules, would be rewarded by a decent job, a decent living, and a decent retirement. No more. There are no longer any guarantees when it comes to the future.

Institutions Are Not Trustworthy

The “deal” referred to above was supported in large part by public institutions (I mean “public” in a broad sense): higher education, large employers, government agencies, community organizations. People no longer trust these institutions to do what they promise. (Even higher education, near the top of the list in terms of how much people find it trustworthy, only garners 35% trust.) Yet these institutions still control many aspects of people’s day-to-day lives. The frustration this generates is palpable.

The Moral Compass Is Askew

People say they are worried that America’s morals are in decline. This is a broad-based worry. People are worried about public leaders acting hypocritically, about business leaders acting out of greed, about fellow community members acting out of selfishness. Because they can’t trust others to behave responsibly, people say they have in large part given up hope that better rules or better enforcement will fix the problem.

America’s Best Days May Be Behind Us

People are plagued with a nagging feeling that our best days are behind us. People say they are aware that in many cases the next generation will be worse off than now. They also worry about America’s place in the world — and have misgivings that other nations (especially China and India) are poised to take over the reins.

Leaders Are Not Up To The Challenge

People express skepticism that the current generation of leaders is really up to the tasks it has before it. The debt ceiling debacle was just another in a long line of failures of leadership. People are dumfounded by leaders who appear to be unable to drive progress of any sort.

We Can’t Work Together

At the same time, people lament that on an “ordinary people” level, we used to be able to work together productively — and they feel we have lost that. People say they are literally afraid of their neighbors and that public life even on the local level has become filled with shouting and anger. They feel people can’t put community ahead of individual.

The Elites Don’t Care, People Are Shut Out

People are really, really disgusted with elites — political, business, academic, and more. People think that elites have an easy life that is guaranteed — for instance, majorities of people in focus groups believe that elected officials get a salary for life and are shuttled around in limousines. They also believe leaders actively rig things so they can have it easier and easier, and that they work against the public’s interest at times on purpose.

It’s not a happy picture. America is in a dark mood, collectively. People are reluctant to express hope and, when they do, it sounds somewhat forced. For example, many adults say they think that today’s youth will be able to get good jobs because they will have technical skills — but scratch at the surface and the optimism vanishes.

The above is based on my analysis of work by a number of good friends (including John Doble, John Creighton, and Steve Farkas) and on some of my own work. I am sure there are other concerns that I do not touch on. I was trying to hit the overriding themes. What would you add?

My good friend Noelle McAfee has just published a very important intereview that she conducted with Lebanese intellectual and activist Ziad Majed.

The full interview is here. I urge you in the strongest possible way to read it.

Here is one small piece:

NM: You know, the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe varied according to what kind of history and memory of civil society the various countries had — with Eastern Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia having a great deal, but Romania having very little.  The Romanians executed their leaders, whereas the other revolutions proceeded peaceably. The more history of civil society, the better the revolutions fared, during and afterwards. Are there any lessons here for the Arab world?

ZM: There are lots of lessons from Eastern Europe and from Latin America for the Arab World.

Police states, terror, censorship, corruption, the cult of personality (for rulers) were and are common trends in many of the regimes in question and understanding ways in which they were deconstructed in the different Eastern European cases is very useful for Arab democracy activists in the current phase.

What might be crucial, however, in influencing transitions in the present Arab situation — more than the history of civil society and its level of development — is the degree of social cohesion in the concerned country. Whenever a despotic regime relies on a sectarian or tribal basis, overthrowing it peacefully becomes difficult due to the fact that the clientelist networks and the military/police ones that the regime built are concentrated in this sectarian/tribal basis, and its members consider themselves directly threatened by the regime change. This is the case in many Levant and Gulf countries, while it was less the case in Egypt and Tunisia in Northern Africa. This is the case in many Levant and Gulf countries (and in Libya), while it was less the case in Egypt and Tunisia. In other words, countries with deep vertical divisions might confront more challenges than those with horizontal ones.

Last weekend I led a candidate training program run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. It is a bipartisan four-day session that brings experts in all the important aspects of campaigning — planning, fundraising, message development, communication, GOTV, and more — and wraps it all in a framework of ethics. (I helped design the program, which is unique in the nation and produces successful candidates.)

In the wrap up session at the end, I did something a little different than I normally do. As the days unfolded, I had been noticing many students (all first- or second-time candidates) resisting some of the advice they were getting. Even more interesting, some of the most-repeated advice was the advice most strongly resisted.

For instance, most consultants repeated that the best thing for a local candidate could do is to knock on doors. Yet many students would later make plans about attending large events or meetings, talking with press, and other things — almost anything but knocking on doors.

I began to realize there was a list of things that people just don’t want to do that was behind this resistance. This is not criticism of the students. I believe these are natural things that most people would rather avoid. It’s just that, in the campaiogn world, they are necessary.

So I repeated the list to the group. Here it is:

  • Ask for money for individuals
  • Do in-depth homework and really know issues
  • Work very hard
  • Research ones’ self and face shortcomings
  • Knock on doors and talk directly to voters
  • Give up control of the campaign to a campaign manager
  • Feel anxious or uncomfortable (especially speaking in front of people)

This relates to Seth Godin’s “lizard brain.” That’s the part of your brain that paralyzes you with fear, distracts you, and tells you that you don’t have to out in all that work.

I have very high hopes for this group of candidates. There were a number of real stars. And I got the sense that once these areas of resistance were named, they would be much easier to work against.

As people wring their hands over the “toxic” rhetoric swirling throughout public life, a proposal from Colorado Senator Mark Udall has been gaining traction and winning approving nods from The Concerned Elite. The idea? At the upcoming State Of The Union address on January 25, don’t seat Members of Congress by party but mix them up.

This idea, originally proposed by Third Way one week ago, seeks to end the spectacle of one side of the audience standing and applauding while the other sits in stony silence. The intended result is harmony, or at least a scaling back of partisan tension.

I know that many people I respect are in favor of this. However, I think it’s just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic — a futile endeavor that distracts from the real problem.

In the first place, it will actually benefit Democrats by making it appear that the whole room is standing in applause at certain points rather than just half. In the second place, it seems foolish to think that making Members switch desks as if they are wayward elementary school children will make the class run any smoother.

The Real Problem

A more important flaw, though, is that the problem is not that we disagree — it is that we express our disagreements in ways that are disagreeable. Everything in public life feels as if it is a game of one-upsmanship and advantage-seeking.

One key way that this plays out is in the annual game of applause lines in State Of The Union addresses. At least since the Johnson administration, it has been a tradition to clap for the things that your party likes, and remain stonily silent at the things your party doesn’t. (So Johnson got notable stony silence at his mention of the Civil Rights Act.)

Now it has become tradition to interrupt the speech repeatedly, and part of the journalistic coverage involves counting these interruptions and timing them, as if the energy with which the party faithful express support for their own positions reflects something other than the energy of self-interest.

All this clapping, and the focus wasted upon it, seems to me to diminish the importance and value of the State Of The Union. A better initiative, I would propose, is for all Members to agree not to clap. Let the President give the annual update uninterrupted. Let the American people hear it in full, without the necessity of knowing how much the two sides wish to express their agreement or disagreement (save that for the spin room afterwards).

(Photo credit: Flickr user ‘dvs’.)

Photo by Flickr user "S†e"

The tragic events in Arizona may well be a turning point. Many are calling for changes in policies, and many of these changes may well make sense. Many are also calling for a scaling back of the vitriolic political rhetoric that has marked public life these days. There is much blame being directed at political leaders on the right who use a nostalgic, hyper-patriotic, libertarian kind of language that includes repeated references to the Founders, and to Revolution, and veiled (and not-so-veiled) insinuations that it’s time for violence.

Now, like many, I don’t like that kind of rhetoric. I find it damaging. And it may be the case that it contributes to the kind of climate where the shooting in Tucson could take place (though I believe there is no valid way to test that hypothesis, as instinctively true as it may feel).

But many of the responses I have heard to the Arizona rampage seem equally intemperate. The call from many on the left is for a crackdown on these leaders, for them to be held accountable.

I don’t think the best way to reduce the vitriol in public life is to get mad.

The best way to reduce the level of vitriol is for individuals (me, you, friends, family, colleagues) to stop tolerating it from our peers.

For me to tell an enemy, “Quit that inflammatory talk,” will fall on deaf ears. The divide between us will only be further hardened. No, instead, what I ought to do is demand better behavior from the people who agree with me. We listen to like-minded people, and set our norms that way. When I am in a meeting and someone starts getting mad, and it gets over the top, I need to rush to the defense of moderation.

Indeed, I need to quit thinking there are enemies in public life. Because an enemy is someone I want to kill. There are opponents, detractors, people I disagree with, and others who are misguided. But there are no “enemies.”

We can’t demand better behavior from the other side. It won’t work. We can practice rhetorical nonviolence, right here and right now, with those in our immediate circle.

My favorite example of nonviolence in the day-to-day was provided by none other than Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, in a seminar I had the good fortune to attend some time ago. I wrote a piece spurred by that experience here, but here is the salient portion for our purposes:

“Turn to your neighbor,” Arun Ghandi told us, “and make a fist. Pretend you are holding the world’s most valuable diamond.” I was at a global conference at Kennesaw State University, where Mahatma Ghandi’s grandson was giving the keynote. Mr. Gandhi is a potent speaker in his own right. “Now, neighbor: Try to get the diamond.” There ensued amusing antics as a roomful of people struggled in what looked like a cross-cultural arm-wrestling contest. My own neighbor good-naturedly stabbed my hand with a butter knife, to hoots of laughter at our table. I gave up the diamond.

After a decent interval, Mr. Ghandi raised his hand and waited. We stopped struggling and looked to the podium. “Tell me honestly. How many of you asked your neighbor if they would please give you the diamond?” Silence. He nodded slowly, as if he rarely got much response to that question. “See how violence seeps into everything we do? I did not ask you to attack your neighbor, only to get their diamond.”

The year: 1989.

The place: dilapidated beachfront apartment on Venice beach.

I was awakened one groggy morning by a knock on the front door. It was Jerry brown, who came into my apartment and said something quite memorable.

Watch the video of me telling the story:

(Yes, I told this story as a podcast some time ago, but since Governor Brown was inaugurated yesterday I could not resist telling the story again.)

Jerry Brown by Flickr user Freedom to Marry

I recall the day I met Juan Williams in the elevator. It was a couple of years ago. I was in the C-SPAN / FOX building overlooking the Capitol; we were both going down the elevator after our respective Fox appearances. We chatted. He handed me his card — NPR. He won’t remember it.

But for me, that appearance cemented my decision to abandon any aspiration to being a pundit.

For years, literally since before blogs were called blogs, I had been writing essays on public life, politics, and ethics. I really had little to say about partisan issues, and I was equally maddening to folks on the left and the right (if my hate email is to be believed).  I remember once, my editor at the Christian Science Monitor begged me to divulge my party affiliation in one essay on our divisive political culture — I refused (and I think the essay is stronger for it).

Eventually, I got noticed by a new outlet that focused on conservative issues but that also was making noises about wanting “other” voices. So I began writing for Pajamas Media. Some of my stories got picked up in small ways. I got a link from Instapundit.  And I began to get invitations from Fox-TV to appear.

The day I met Juan Williams, I was appearing to talk about a piece I had written decrying the onslaught of almost-porn everywhere one looks. My article was fairly meditative, and I did not breathe fire and brimstone. But my time on TV was decidedly odd. In those remote situations, you can’t see anything; you are in a dark booth with a headphone. So a disembodied voice fired questions at me, goading me into saying the world was going to Hell. It was very, very clear the role I was supposed to be playing: angry prude. I just didn’t go there, and the host seemed peeved.

I left that appearance somewhat despondent. I knew I disappointed the hosts, and I’m the kind of people-pleaser who doesn’t like to feel he’s disappointed.

But as I thought about it, I realized that the venue was not for me. My thoughts and opinions have too much “on the one hand, on the other hand” to them. Talk TV requires its personalities to be unequivocal, and to never say, “Hmmm, you may have a point.” I decided that I just wasn’t cut out for this punditry business. I realized that the people who sought out my writing weren’t looking for anger, but contemplation. That doesn’t make good TV. I have nothing against Fox (or there alterego, shout channel, MSNBC), I am just not a good personality for them.

So now, years later, I feel for Juan Williams. He is a thoughtful person, and was torn between two worlds. On the one hand he had his NPR gig, where he could steer clear of ham-handed opinion in favor of contemplation. On the other hand, he had his Fox gig, where he was paid to be the moderate in an incendiary milieu — a context where he the only way to really get a word in is to shout.

It couldn’t last and it didn’t. He said something that seemed to some to cross a line (this article isn’t about whether it did or not, so I won’t tell you what I think). NPR decided it was too much. Fox said “awesome,” and handed him a $2 million contract extension.

Again — I have nothing against Fox, or Juan Williams (whom I find thoughtful and who was very friendly to me).

I just wish there was an audience for deliberation rather than debate.

One of my very first clients when I started working independently (I hung out my own shingle back in November 2003) was a group called the Policy Consensus Initiative, along with its sister organization the National Policy Consensus Center. I will always be grateful to PCI’s founder Chris Carlson and NPCC’s director Greg Wolf for giving me that needed boost in the early days. My work with PCI-NPCC involved helping them develop a strategic plan along with some key language and taglines.

PCI-NPCC works to increase the adoption of collaborative governance (where office holders use their innate convening power to bring together all parties to craft solutions to hard problems, working across sector and across jurisdictions) at the state and local level. Getting everyone involved together to work toward a solution seems like common sense, but one interesting facet of this work is that many of the rules and structures in government make it very difficult to do this.

I was therefore excited to learn of a new bill passed in Minnesota that establishes a “Collaborative Governance Council,” that includes office holders as well as others, with the goal of reducing barriers to collaboration.

Here is the article from PCI-NPCC’s newsletter:

Rep. Marsha Swails (l.) and Rep. Carol McFarlane (r.) high five after completion of the bill establishing Collaborative Governance Council

Rep. Marsha Swails (l.) and Rep. Carol McFarlane (r.) high five after completion of the bill establishing Collaborative Governance Council

The Minnesota Legislature passed a bill that was signed into law to create a Collaborative Governance Council that will increase collaboration between state and local government.

The law creates a 12-member council to develop recommendations to increase governmental collaboration by:

  • reviewing laws and rules that slow collaboration efforts;
  • using technology to connect entities and share information;
  • modernizing financial transactions and facilitating credit and debit card transactions, electronic funds, transfers and electronic data interchanges; and
  • creating model forms for joint power agreements.

The council will include the State Auditor and a member of the League of Minnesota Cities; Minnesota Association of Townships; Association of Minnesota Counties; Minnesota School Board Association; American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 5; MN Chamber of Commerce; Education Minnesota; and Service Employees International Union.

The bill was a bi-partisan effort, co-sponsored by Rep. Marsha Swails and Rep. Carol McFarlane.

Initially, Reps. Swails and McFarlane convened a work group to examine shared services among school districts in Minnesota. Swails, a high school teacher, described the work group as “an informal process that was more like a classroom than anything else.” McFarlane and Swails traveled across the state together, attending Education Service Cooperative meetings, and heard more stories about the challenges local governments encountered in attempts to share services among school districts or among other units of government, such as fire departments. From these discussions, McFarlane and Swails realized that the question underlying many of these conversations was “what are the obstacles that keep communities from sharing?”

Swails noted that while some groups were initially skeptical of what the workgroup would accomplish, “Carol and I kept asking them to come to meetings. Building trust was key to getting people to want to be part of a solution, and so we did what we could to break down formalities. Carol and I sat at the witness table facing the group in the galley and engaged them in lively discussions rather than a formal hearing process”

As the bill passed in the House, 108-22, Rep. Swails twittered, “True bi-partisan work brought this to reality. Most important bill of my two terms.”

State auditor Rebecca Otto, who will chair the Council, said, “”Local governments are already collaborating, but we want to identify other areas where they could collaborate in these tight times. If there are laws in the way of allowing that to happen, we will make recommendations to change current statute.”

The Council’s first meeting will take place by July 30th of this year.