Courtney E Martin
The headlines this week will be dominated by talk of partisan gridlock in Washington DC—Americans' supposed representatives once again reflexively butting heads over ideology in lieu of actual problem solving. It's enough to make a US citizen—whether red, blue, or steering clear of these increasingly immature parties—feel like giving up on the promise of American democracy.
But not so fast. The story that isn’t making it onto the nightly news is this: a growing number of Americans, fed up with partisan dysfunction at the federal level, are re-imagining democracy at the local level. And I mean the really, really local level—as in their own living rooms, libraries, churches, and coffee shops. Neighbours and friends, sometimes ideologically opposed, are gathering and making a concerted effort to talk through some of the most contentious and critical issues facing America.
It’s not debate; it’s a dire, in some ways, deeply optimistic attempt to reclaim the potential for common ground. As average Americans watch elected officials fail to transcend private interests and/or fixed ideology—whether on healthcare, gun control, or a variety of other urgent issues—they’ve lost faith. In fact, Pew reports that Americans’ public trust in government is at historic lows. Of course for some, this deepening cynicism about our democracy serves as an excuse for tuning out when it comes to current events and staying away from the polls altogether. But for others, disappointment is becoming galvanising; if federal officials won’t rescue America’s pluralistic promise, then the proverbial people will.
Like most grassroots phenomena, it’s not happening without a concerted effort by many dedicated organisations. The Public Conversations Project, for example, trained facilitators in Minnesota to lead conversations on the definition of marriage; the legalisation of gay marriage went into effect this August. Joan Blades, serial co-founder of hugely successful organisations like Moveon.org and Momsrising.org, has begun Living Room Conversations, which spurred small scale, bipartisan conversations in people’s homes about energy, money in politics, the role of government and immigration just over the course of the last year. The National Institute for Civil Discourse, led by the formidable Carolyn Lukensmeyer, has created the Your Words Count initiative, which encourages citizens to get informed and join local conversations.
And even media makers are getting into the act. Beloved radio host Krista Tippett is modelling the power of thoughtful, complex conversations among ideological opponents through her Civil Conversations Project, which has featured dialogue about abortion, marriage, and the future of Christianity, among others. Take a listen and you’ll find that these shows are a different species entirely than the kind of shouting matches that we are used to seeing on cable news; common ground isn’t just acknowledged, but mapped as an exercise in moral imagination.
Parker Palmer, author of Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, has argued that this kind of work is so important because it strengthens the public sphere—that currently weakened connective tissue between our private lives (pumped up on social media and consumerism) and the federal level (devolving into an elite parlour game of back scratching). He writes, "The human heart, this vital core of the human self, holds the power to destroy democracy or to make it whole. That is why our nineteenth-century visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, insisted in his classic Democracy in America that democracy’s future would depend heavily on generations of American citizens cultivating the habits of the heart that support political wholeness."
Parker argues that we’re not just less connected with one another, perhaps less happy, if we don’t interact with our neighborus, create strong bonds of community, and have difficult conversations about the things we care most about; we’re also endangering our country at the highest levels.
If we don't practice articulating our own values or listen to others' passionately describe theirs, we're less likely to expect the same of our elected officials—a critical practice in a diverse democracy. If we don't investigate the roots of our beliefs and get curious about our differences, we forfeit the framing of the issues of the day to cable news producers after ratings, not resolution. And if we don't search for common ground via our brightest ideas for fixing what’s broken, we’re less likely to believe that our problems can be solved at all.
So while this week will no doubt feature plenty of opportunities for finger-pointing at the bad behaviour of America's elected officials, it is the citizens that commit to deepening their own capacity for civic dialogue that will emerge with some measure of hope about the nation's future.
Courtney E Martin is a writer, speaker and social media strategist based in Brooklyn. She is the author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists and the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network.