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Issue No. 120-c (March 2009) -- Mark Satin, Editor

AmericaSpeaks's wise democracy meets Chickering and Turner's transpartisan movement

Summary: A report from AmericaSpeaks and other activist groups recently urged the White House to educate and then empower a million or more citizens to work with government in formulating public policies.  A pipe dream?  Not at all, suggest conservative Lawry Chickering and liberal Jim Turner in their important new manifesto, Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life.  It’s one of many ways in which our democracy might become less “mechanistic” and more “organic.”  But we’ll need a transpartisan movement first. . . .

I. Toward a wise democracy

A “conference report” with policy recommendations meant for the new presidential administration might not seem to promise much in the way of vision.  But Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy -- produced by the activist groups AmericaSpeaks, Demos, and Everyday Democracy – is different.

Some of the recommendations are so sensible as to bring tears to one’s eyes:

  • “Adopting a broad set of voter-convenience measures such as early voting and vote-by-mail”;
  • “Developing national standards for election administration”;
  • “Supporting ranked-choice ballots and instant-runoff elections.”

And the centerpiece of the report (physically as well as conceptually) is one big transcendent recommendation: Have our new president “call for regular national discussions of one million Americans or more on the issues of highest public concern, like foreign policy, energy, taxes, health care, and jobs.”

On the surface, that recommendation may seem merely populist: calling all soapboxes and grievances!  But get into the details and it’s clear that the recommendation would lead to exactly the sort of learning process that’s at the heart of the radical-middle notion of becoming a wise (not just a popular) democracy.

First and foremost, the million-plus participants in each discussion wouldn’t just show up.  They’d be given, beforehand, “balanced, accessible educational materials to ensure that everyone begins with adequate context to come to informed judgments.”

And they wouldn’t be thrown together chaotically.  A “national network of skilled, neutral facilitators” would support deliberation among participants; and that deliberation would take many forms:

Some people will weigh in by participating in massive national town meetings that link gatherings together by satellite. . . .  Others will host their own conversations in their homes, places of work, or community centers.  In small groups, they will wrestle with the challenges facing our nation and then submit their ideas over the Internet.  Still others who cannot attend the national discussion in person will join the process online. . . .

Just as important, the views expressed would not vanish into air.  Instead, a report summarizing the views and priorities of the participants would be conveyed to Congress and the President (presumably by the facilitators), Congress would be required to hold hearings on the report, and the President would be required to issue a written response.

Because of the national government’s mandate to respond, the media would be compelled to treat the dialogue-and-report process as major news, and organized citizen participation would become a daily part of the fabric of American life.

Leading and overseeing the whole effort would be a White House Office of Civic Engagement, a permanent new agency dedicated to the manifest goal of greater citizen participation, as well as the latent goal of helping us learn how to listen to, talk with, and generate proposals with those who might not share our values or views.

II. Toward an "organic" democracy

One unusual aspect of the report by AmericaSpeaks et al. above is that it’s comfortable urging the government to bring citizens into critical dialogue with it – and with each other!  That raises an important question: Should governments play any kind of citizen organizing role in a democracy?  Can citizens work with governments in creative new ways?

Probably most activists would be skeptical.  Many of them see The People as being on one side, and governments and corporations on the other.  But an enthusiastic “yes!” can be derived from a thoughtful new manifesto by Lawrence Chickering and James Turner, Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life (daVinci Press, 2008).

Chickering and Turner don’t see government as The Solution, but they don’t see it as The Enemy either.  They argue eloquently against our “mechanistic” separation of public and private – they’d like the American people to develop a more “organic” or “connected” relationship to the policy-making process – and that would definitely mean “engaging citizens as partners with governments.”

Chickering is a lifelong conservative (currently at the Hoover Institution), Turner is a lifelong liberal (long an attorney in Washington DC, and one of the original Nader’s Raiders).  But Chickering isn’t your run-of-the-mill conservative – he’s founder of a group called Educate Girls Globally.  And Turner isn’t your ordinary Naderite; in fact, he broke with Nader in the 1970s (at some personal and political cost) in order to work less antagonistically with business on practical solutions to consumer problems.

Turner and Chickering met at a party hosted by Search for Common Ground in the 1990s, and their book is the first attempt to articulate a comprehensive introduction to radical middle politics since a spate of books from 2003-04 (reviewed by us HERE).

It is a worthy successor to those books.  It improves on them in a couple of ways.

For one thing, it shows that the partisan political debate is out of touch with the pragmatic-and-innovative character of a majority of American adults (drawing on a variety of polls and surveys, they estimate 130 million).  In other words, interest in a radical middle politics is not confined to a so-called “caring” or “culturally creative” minority.

For another thing, it defines its own preferred moniker – “transpartisan” – in a way that gets at process, not just substance:

“Transpartisan” includes “bipartisan” but also goes beyond it.  Transpartisan typically involves looking at an issue in a new way that will bring adversaries together.  The central transpartisan insight has to do with broadening the meaning of “public” beyond governments to include citizens engaging each other often in informal partnerships with governments to solve public problems. . . .  “Transpartisan” action focuses on understanding issues in new ways and creates spaces for cooperation that are sadly often hidden.

Finally, as you can see from the quote above, the book does not “triangulate” the far right and far left out of policy relevance.  It draws on them as well as on many other political perspectives in formulating solutions to our problems.

If you had to boil Chickering and Turner’s vision down to three parts, here’s what you’d come up with:

1.) American politics would stop being about left-against-right, and would evolve into a dialogue among four basic positions – the “order left” (basically, social democrats), the “freedom left” (including ACLU and counter-culture types), the “freedom right” (libertarians and economic conservatives), and the “order right” (neocons and cultural conservatives).  That’s still sort of a straightjacket, but at least it would dissolve the “narrow,” “brittle,” and “mechanistic” political world of left-against-right, and lay the groundwork for a “connected, organic vision” that could “reconcile and integrate the two great values of all modern societies: freedom and order.”

2.) Out of that new dialogue would come innovative policy proposals drawing on the essence of all four positions.  (One of the strengths of this book is that, like Ted Halstead and Michael Lind’s The Radical Center, 2001, reviewed by us HERE, and Matt Miller’s The Two Percent Solution, 2003, discussed by us HERE, it provides concrete examples of boundary-crossing policy proposals.  Among the topics covered: prison reform, public education, health care, race, and national security.)

3.) To foster that new dialogue and help promote innovative policy proposals, transpartisan activism would encourage leaders from all political parties to be in touch both intellectually and personally, and would build transpartisan initiatives at every level.

For example, the authors speak highly of Mark Gerzon’s Congressional retreats, which apparently managed to provide a creative, post-partisan environment for members of Congress and their families and aides . . . until the leaderships of both political parties panicked and pulled the plug.  And the authors call for “transpartisan club[s] in each political jurisdiction”:

Republicans, Democrats, third-party members, independents, and unregistered residents who want to participate would meet to take positions, plan actions, and support transpartisan initiatives from other such clubs around the country. . . .  Because they developed their proposals in transpartisan collaboration, they would avoid the demonization and blame that infects so many political advocacy groups.  Most importantly, they would organize the constituencies that would implement transpartisan initiatives and / or demand a more collaborative style of politics from candidates and officeholders.

Be “human” with each other, the authors urge.  Exude organic “life” not mechanistic “deadness” (though in good transpartisan fashion, they argue that mechanistic thinking, too, has its place).  Don’t hide behind your rigid political or professional identities.

Chickering and Turner are deeply involved in the Reuniting America organization (described by us HERE), which recently helped generate a “network of networks,” the Transpartisan Alliance.  Will the Alliance help generate transpartisan clubs?  Given the authors’ vision and passion, I suspect that’s not very far down their wish list.



Although I deeply admire all the books we've discussed from the year 2008, the 2008 Radical Middle Political Book Award -- the 29th annual book award we've given out (going all the way back to Renewal and New Options newsletters) -- goes jointly to Chickering and Turner's Voice of the People, above, and Alanna Hartzok's The Earth Belongs to Everyone, discussed by us HERE.




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