Independence/Interdependence 2020

On this Independence Day, we invite you to think about our interdependence. As the pledge of allegiance recognizes, the two go hand in hand. We can’t maintain liberty if we don’t have justice for all. We are interdependent.

It was interdependence that secured our freedoms. It was interdependence – reflected in the design of our financial and transportation systems — that helped build our economy. It was by recognizing our interdependence that we got through past epidemics and economic crises.

Without acknowledging our interdependence and thinking about the common good, we can’t secure the physical, economic, or political health of our communities. Both citizens and their government play important roles in protecting both our freedoms and the public health and welfare.

As a people, we are fond of saying “Freedom isn’t free.” There is a cost even in our daily lives to maintaining that freedom – a cost in terms of self-control, respect for others, and putting in the time and effort to understand our economic and political systems so that we can make informed decisions. It’s hard work, and worth committing to on this Independence Day. Are we willing to do our part?

“A true patriot salutes the flag but always also makes sure it’s flying over a nation that’s not only free but fair, not only strong but just.  History and reason summon us to embrace love and loyalty – to a citizenship that seeks a better world, calls on those better angels, and fights for better days. What, really, could be more patriotic than that?  What, in the end, could be more American?” 


John Meachem and Tim McGraw, Songs of America, (Penquin Random House, 2019)

Reach Out, Listen, and Talk

In both classes and casual conversations, people are asking, How did we get here? How will this end?

Some feel despair, some see an opportunity to address long-standing issues in our democracy. All hope for a better future for their children.

Those who despair decry the harsh partisanship of our politics and the confusing overwhelm of information that is pushed at us from every turn. They ask how can the average citizen be heard? How can we change? Where might we go?

And in all these conversations people are looking at how to bring our political and economic lives into line with the needs of people – how to build a more caring economy, a more compassionate culture, a wiser democracy.

The pandemic has revealed many weaknesses in our culture, economy, and political infrastructure, which developed over many years.  And it is providing an opportunity, should we choose to use it, to shape our futures through dialogue.

So now is the time to reach out and talk with others, even if — especially if — those are difficult conversations. And by talking we don’t mean talking at.  Instead we need to be talking with others in ways that acknowledge our concern, care, and interdependence.  None of us has all of the answers, and for better or worse, our futures are intertwined.

So let’s make it for better.  Reach out and connect with your family, friends and neighbors. Hear their fears, share yours, generate new ideas together, and engage others. Build a dialogue that has the potential to move us forward.

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.