Tag Archives: democracy

What Now?

As we noted back in 2017, you reap what you sow. The seeds of this week’s unrest and Capitol riot have been sown for many years throughout our political and popular culture. Conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation propagated and were allowed to thrive. This week we witnessed the harvest of anger and resentment and their related narratives of hate.

In a democracy that values independence and individual choice, it is incumbent on every citizen and elected leader to accept the responsibility of maintaining and strengthening our democracy by valuing the voices of every citizen and working to define the common good. This involves a commitment to listening to views different from one’s own, to dialogue, and to finding ways to improve how we think and work together. What can one citizen do? Quite a lot, and just in your day to day interactions. Call out the narratives of hate, learn and tell stories of wisdom, and work to check and dismantle your own learned habits of tribalism and division.

Note: You can obtain a complete copy of the Metaphor From The Midwest blog post series for free here.

Improving Our Information

For several weeks now I have been teaching a class called “Democracy Lab.” The class reflects the hypothesis that increasing both dialogue and critical thinking skills will improve our democracy. As we discussed the current state of our politics, two key themes emerged, both relating to the information available to voters.  The first theme related to information validation and transparency, and the second to information and mechanisms for holding elected officials accountable.

With the constant push of information – some factual, some made-up, and much of it distorted – it can be hard to sort through the many conflicting accounts of what is happening and why. This often results in the adoption of a partisan lens, simple tuning out, or over-reliance on what “feels right”. As noted in a prior post, we need new filters.  Simply voting once every four years is not a structure in which the citizen voice is easily heard and interpreted.

Our class generated a range of ideas on how government might work with its citizens to improve information flows and ultimately accountability.  Some were relatively simple, such as requiring the president to sign a HIPPA waiver allowing key information on health to be disclosed and disseminated in a prescribed way that took into account national security concerns. Others were more complex.   These included the following, all of which are worthy of further dialogue:

+ Develop a rating system for different types of reporting so citizens could more easily sort through information — unrated sites would be a form of rating. Something like this is emerging for on-line reporting. The class didn’t think though that these ratings could be left to the market, or to elected or appointed officials. One approach identified for engendering trust especially on issues requiring technical or scientific knowledge would be for known professional organizations and civic groups to appoint representatives to an oversight board, and the board be funded through a mix of private and public donations.

+ Require a “state of the union” exit report that follows a prescribed form, is audited by the GAO, and that is disseminated widely.  This could be modeled on the “exit memos” that President Obama had each agency prepare. These were unfortunately ignored by much of the media and few in the public were even aware of their existence or content. The exit memo from the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, included a review of what had been learned fighting the H1N1, Ebola and Zika viruses, and recommended the establishment of a new Public Health Emergency Fund, warning that “a ready supply of financial resources is necessary for rapid response to emerging public health threats and would save lives, save money, and protect America’s health security.” How might widespread public knowledge of that warning have affected public support for the tax cuts that occurred in the next few years? Members of our class would have welcomed wider dissemination and discussion of these memos and their recommendations.

+ Create a public dashboard administered by the GAO that allows the public to easily track progress (or lack of progress) on key legislation and the promises made as that legislation was pushed through, and also track diversion of funds from their budgeted purposes. Class members agreed that when public money is being spent the public deserves to know whether the anticipated benefits materialize or whether that money is being diverted to another purpose and why.

Our founding fathers viewed an informed electorate as a safe-guard for our democracy and our freedoms. We need better dissemination of not just data and opinions but also the historical and current context of key issues and the trade-offs to be made as we apply limited funds to meet a range of needs. This would equip voters to better inform themselves and to hold their elected representatives accountable for both the decisions they make and the narratives they share.

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.