Tag Archives: democracy

How Do We Want It To Be?

There is an simple solution to every human problem – easy, plausible, and wrong.” H.L. Mencken

It’s easy in our debate-oriented culture to get stuck in an exchange of positions and arguments over who is right or what is wrong.  So how do you move through that?

Here is one question that often works to change the pattern when a conversation starts falling into an unproductive exchange of competing views:

“How would you like it to be?”

This can also be asked in the form of an invitation: “I think we are getting lost in the details, can we talk for a moment of how we would like it to be?”

This question (or invitation) opens a path for dialogue, steering away from debates on who is to blame, or what action should be taken, or whose information is better.  Instead this question/invitation shifts the focus to desired outcomes in a shared future. It invites creativity, invokes values, and offers hope – all in just 7 words.

Then, as you listen to and reflect on the responses to this question, you can further expand the dialogue by asking questions that gently explore definitions of terms used by the speaker (e.g., can you tell me more about your definition of democracy? what do you mean by “a great nation”, who is “we” or “they”?).  You can also ask questions that explore the “why” of the preferred outcomes. And as to any proposed outcome you might also ask “how might we get there”?

Both the opening question and the exploratory questions that follow provide more opportunities than do our standard forms of conversation to make a shared connection  whether to values, to hoped for outcomes, or to the hurts that need healing.

In recent conversations I have had, people across the partisan continuum have expressed concern for their families and a desire to see “more human values” or “respect for human dignity” in our policies. Many also want to “live their lives in peace”.  They connect with each other as they share stories and imagine a better future for us all. That connection is what is needed to help us work through the difficult issues together.

In our next post we will look further at the issue of pursuing both peace and prosperity, what the data tells us, and how that data can be used in building an ongoing dialogue.

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)

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.

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).