Lessons From Germany

The Federal Republic of Germany was formed in the wake of one of the most infamous dictatorships in history – the Third Reich. That dictatorship was made possible when leaders in the Weimar Republic effectively eliminated legislative oversight of the Executive Branch. Without such oversight, Hitler acted quickly to consolidate his power and limit civil liberties, leading to the death of millions.

Given this history, it is not surprising that a key focus of the German post-war constitution was ensuring sufficient and ongoing oversight of the Executive Branch. The Bundestag – which is analogous to the United States House of Representatives – exercises this oversight power. As is stated in its public relations guide, Facts: The Bundestag at a glance, the Bundestag “exercises an important power of scrutiny over the Government. No Chancellor or government minister can escape this scrutiny.” Specifically,

  • The executive branch is “required to keep the Bundestag regularly informed of its plans and intentions.”

  • The Bundestag also has the right to appoint committees of inquiry, and it is required to do so if one quarter of its members request it.  The role of these committees is to “investigate possible abuses in government and administration and possible misconduct on the part of politicians. “

  • The committees of inquiry can order the executive branch to submit files, and call government representatives as witnesses.

  • Other parliamentary groups can also demand written information on particular issues, and these can lead to “parliamentary debates in which the Government is required to present its case and answer questions.”

  • Even individual members “can submit written questions to the Government, and government representatives are required to give direct answers to those questions” at question and answer sessions with ministers at scheduled times.

Germany is not the only country that has experienced a struggle between its democracy and a leader who resists oversight.  The book How Democracies Die, details multiple instances of democracies in both Europe and South America that were undermined and diminished by autocratic leaders who rejected legislative oversight and denied the legitimacy of their political opponents.  It is not uncommon for an autocratic leader to dismiss oversight efforts as subversive, criminal, disloyal, or opposed to constitutional order.  Legislative oversight is not, however, a departure from our constitutional order.  Legislative oversight is one of the foundations of a democratic government.

How robust is our democracy? That depends on us. As the authors of How Democracies Die point out, “Democratic institutions depend crucially on the willingness of governing parties to defend them – even against their own leaders.”  That means speaking up for democratic values and democratic institutions.  Critical thinking, independent judgment, a willingness to review information from many different sources, the ability to defuse appeals to hate and fear, and dialogue across partisan lines both by citizens and parties,  are all important tools for strengthening our democracy. If you care about your freedom and your democracy, use them, and request that your elected representatives do so as well.

Speaking Up.

Its been a difficult few weeks in American politics. Are you concerned that racism, hate, mendacity, and hyper-partisanship are dominating our national discourse?

As citizens we have more power to shape the national discourse than we might think. Here’s what you can do:

Recognize the patterns of hate and respond with Stories of Wisdom. Ask your elected representatives to avoid the former and encourage and support them when they too have the courage to speak of interdependence or to focus on the common good.

Call out distortion and deflection, and avoid falling into these habits yourself.

Rather than simply reacting to or throwing out a trigger word, ask for definitions, supply yours, and explore the differences.

Be willing to truly listen to your fellow citizens. Note that “[b]y listening attentively, we can take in the experiences of others without necessarily agreeing with what they are advocating.” (David Matthews, The Ecology of Democracy, (2018). Listening does help us to better understand each other.

Make the effort to think things through. Consume media that does more than excite and inflame.  Look for sites and sources that confirm facts or provide context on the complex issues of the day.  As Thomas Jefferson said “Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”

Look for what is working and get involved in organizations that are trying to unite rather than divide our country.  It’s not about Us v. Them. It’s about all of us, and what we might be as a country.

So reach out, talk, and commit to the good of your neighbors. We can do better.

Afro and White, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, our fates are bound together. We can run from each other but we cannot escape each other. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity. Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, freedom lies just on the other side.

We should have liberty for all.   

– Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, July 4, 1992.

Tips for a Peaceful Thanksgiving

Just in time for Thanksgiving dinner, here are a few resources that all of you who are interested in dialogue might find useful when sitting at the dinner table.

How to Have a Conversation With Your Angry Uncle Over Thanksgiving is a neat tool for practicing your productive dialogue skills. This bot, made available through The New York Times, allows you to interact with an “angry uncle” of either liberal or conservative views. A good way to hone your technique before you meet the relatives!

Better Angels has also provided a brief guide on keeping the dinner table conversation positive by limiting the amount of political conversation that occurs,. This guide also provides tips for one on one conversations.  Read Skills for Thanksgiving Conversations.

For more in depth planning, we also refer you back to these posts from the series A Metaphor From the MidwestWeeding and Watching Part 1 and Weeding and Watching Part 2.

We wish you and yours a happy Thanksgiving and hope these resources prove useful as you enjoy spending time with your families and friends.

Pursuing the “American Dream”

In a recent dialogue class for older students we were discussing the “American Dream” and how this concept shifted over time from a dream based in community (“with liberty and justice for all”) to one rooted in more individually focused consumerism, with a particular focus on home ownership. In previous discussions members of the class had expressed a concern for loss of community and expressed dismay at our bitterly partisan politics.  On this day, the class agreed that one dream they had for the next generation was a political system that was less chaotic and divisive, more productive, and one that encouraged individuals and groups to explore ideas, analyze information, and work together.

What might help us move toward that dream?  A place to start is promoting dialogue rather than talking past each other. Another class, held in the Spring of 2018 developed this “citizen’s guide” to encourage just that.  We recommend this guide to anyone interested in more productive political dialogue before, during, and after our upcoming elections.

Teaching Democracy Depends on Us

“Democracy must be reborn in each generation and education is its midwife.” (John Dewey)

How do we teach engaged citizenship and the kind of deliberative dialogue that can lead to wise public judgments?  We can’t leave it to to schools, and we certainly can’t leave it to political parties who promote factionalism and hyper-partisanship.  Each generation must teach democratic values and practices to the next.  My generation (Boomers) hasn’t done the best job.

As one small effort to remedy this deficit, we have written several e-books designed to help citizens and community organizations plan and host public dialogues. These books are relatively short and provide pragmatic advice related to planning, hosting, and facilitating dialogue in your community.  In honor of Law Day and last week’s National Week of Conversation we have discounted the prices by 50% and the discounted prices will stay in effect until May 21 when the higher prices return.   Following is a short description and link to each book.  We would welcome your feedback!

Understanding the Facilitation Cycle  For busy people about to engage a tough crowd on challenging issues. A quick, 20 page read. There are eight phases in the Facilitation Cycle. The first phase, Greeting, starts even before your meeting begins and before your participants come into the room. The last, Send Forth, magnifies the impact of your successful event for days and weeks after it has concluded. Current discounted price $3.99 (normally $7.99).
Dealing With Disruptors  What if you could make that disruptive energy productive? What if you could work with disruptors to increase understanding, broaden support, and build trust in your community? Dealing with Disruptors provides tools and a framework to make that happen. Current discounted price $4.99  (normally $10.99).
Navigating With 3D Evaluation: Public Dialogue for Results – Public engagement and dialogue can achieve valuable, lasting outcomes, but only when supported by ongoing, systematic analysis. This book shows you how to work with participants to set goals, engage everyone through a shared vision, maintain trust through common priorities and interim targets, navigate around obstacles like budget cutbacks and changes in political leadership, determine who is responsible for honoring the commitments made around the dialogue process, and demonstrate the value of your work.  Current discounted price $4.99 (normally $9.99).

Harvesting (From A Midwest Metaphor)

from A Midwest Metaphor

harvesting-metaphor-6

We reap what we sow. The seeds of hate, factionalism, and greed that affect our current politics were planted and allowed to grow, diminishing our hopes for peace and prosperity.

But we can weed, and we can nurture the growth of the seeds that promote community. We can use dialogue to change our harvest.

What could our democracy look like if we as citizens did listen to each other? Or if we demanded more accountability from our public officials in terms of problem solving, fairness, or accuracy of information provided? What if more of us had the courage to speak up and to ask hard questions? Or made the effort to think critically and consider differences in data and interests and values, and struggle with the tensions between those?

If we welcomed a range of voices, moved past either/or narratives, and explored the common good, would we make wiser decisions? Would we be able to find some bounds that defined civility and common sense?

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville studying democracy in America wrote:

Democracy does not give the people the most skillful government, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create, namely an all-pervading and restless activity; a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it and which may, however unfavorable the circumstances may be, produce wonders. These are the true advantages of democracy.

But energy, unharnessed, can become destructive rather than productive. We need to reconsider how we engage with each other. Dialogue provides a channel that can help us to harness our energies towards finding and pursuing common goals. Rather than continuing in partisan battle, we can choose to begin to work together, much as gears engage to move a process forward.

Dialogue serves best when we as a people are confronted with equally legitimate but one-sided visions of the future and asked to choose between them. If they are truly one-sided, being forced to make a choice leads to a dead end. Sustained, hardheaded dialogue can help us to avoid making that false choice and forge a new vision that transcends the limits of each.” (Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue.)

The role of the citizen can be more than just voter, spectator, or recipient of information packaged by others.  Citizens, who are willing to work together to make wise decisions about their future, are essential to a good harvest. Acting as a guardian of democratic values requires vision, effort, and active engagement.  Moving forward means working together.

There is no “them” – only us. Our lives are intertwined. What kind of us do we want to be?