Tag Archives: healing our politics

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.

Thinking Together

We got to where we are politically today through millions of consumer driven decisions on what information to look at and where. How many of those decisions were driven by a desire to be comfortable, to have one’s worldview or worst fears confirmed?

To move forward, we need to build new ways of sifting through the waves of information pushed at us. One way to do that is to spend time thinking about what you value and where we might go if we work together. This citizen-created guide might help with that.

Another way is to critically evaluate our information sources. There are several sites that help us evaluate our information, both on-line and elsewhere.

Be informed, vote your conscience, and regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election, pledge to get to know and work with your fellow Americans across the political spectrum to get our country back on track. We have more in common than you might think.

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.

Harvesting (From A Midwest Metaphor)

from A Midwest Metaphor

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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?

 

Weeding and Watching – Part 2

 

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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In our last post we identified a number of weeds that are growing in our civic soil, including inconsistency and incoherence, deflection, distortion, and denial.  So how do you weed? Whether you are a citizen or a facilitator, there are a number of tools you can use.

Key tools for addressing inconsistency and incoherence are to simply point out the gaps, seek to align rationales and principles, and use open-ended questions to guide discussion towards a more rational analysis.  This might sound like, “I’m interested in understanding your thinking there.  I’m not sure how X leads to Y.”  Or it might sound like “If we were to do that, how would that help us [stated purpose], or further [core value]?” Or it might take the form of an observation:  “I’m not sure why we aren’t worried about growing the deficit now when we were so opposed to that in the last administration. I would like to see some consistency in how we evaluate our policies. Are there principles or values we might use to guide us?” Another approach is to focus on a point in the future and then work backwards. For example, you might ask “How will [current approach] help or hinder our progress?”  Still another approach is to invite reflection on the integrative effects of a particular proposal on related issues, e.g. “If we were to take that approach, how would we fund [accepted programs]”, or (using a real life example) “If we were to create jobs by subsidizing ethanol production, how might that impact the price of the corn we feed our cattle and the health of our agriculture industry? Could one harm the other? What might be the net effect on the economy?” The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking published by the Foundation for Critical Thinking is an excellent resource that can help you identify questions you might ask as you encounter the weeds of inconsistency and incoherence.

Key tools for deflection are to stay persistent in your focus, to break up references to the “either/or” dichotomy and, when deflection takes the form of ad hominem attacks on individuals and groups, to #justsayno2mean.  Staying persistent in your focus includes not taking the bait when a provocative comment attacking something you cherish is offered as a response to an observation or invitation you have made. When such a comment is made, you might say something like, “I’m not sure how that relates, and before we move to another topic I would really like to discuss [the topic at hand].”  A key question for breaking up the “either/or” dichotomy is to ask “can we talk about both?”  or “what if it’s both?”  For example, “I understand you are concerned that leaks are important, as is the interference in our politics by other countries. Can we talk about both?”  Or as another example, “Could it be that both individual choices and systemic injustice contribute to poverty in our community?  Can we explore both, and even other factors that might come into play as well?”  When deflection takes the form of an attack on others you can point out your discomfort (“I don’t like it when others dismiss us that way and I’m uncomfortable talking about my fellow citizens in that way”).  You can also offer a positive observation or experience with the targeted individual or group, or reframe the conversation using the “Stories of Wisdom” patterns.

Key tools for distortion are to request and share sources, invite mutual analysis, and explore underlying emotions, especially fear.  For example, you might say,  “it sounds like we have been looking at different sources of information.  Here is what I have read and I would like to know more about what you have been reviewing.”  And then (after some discussion on sources), note differences in perspective and where the information overlaps (if at all), and ask questions about context, data evaluation, and real life experience that are aligned with the data to wisdom continuum. As you explore why a particular source of information seems credible, you can also identify and discuss the experiences and emotions that affect trust in that source.

Exploring fear and anger is also a key tool for addressing denial.   For example you might ask, “What makes this such a difficult issue to discuss?  What do we fear might happen if it were true?”  or “What harm is there in taking some action if we don’t know for sure?  What would we lose?  What might we gain?”   You might also invite comparisons with the standards used to make nonpolitical decisions. “Before we trust in that denial, what questions might we ask?  If were making a personal investment based on that, what might we want to know?”

Note that all of the above approaches invite dialogue and avoid debate.  As with force-feeding food, force-feeding facts or opinions usually evokes a gag reflex. Debate oriented approaches are ineffective weeding tools precisely because of the emotional and intellectual resistance they automatically produce. Also, none of the weeding approaches discussed above involve the poisons of derision or scapegoating.  All do, however, involve phrasing that emphasizes community and invites joint problem solving.

As with weeds in a garden, rooting out the weeds in our civic soil takes persistence as well as patience and effort. It’s up to us to change the discourse.  Will we?