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Issue No. 56 (July / August 2004) -- Mark Satin, Editor

At last, a movement that would have us listen to and learn from each other

When I boarded my flight from Washington D.C. to Kalamazoo Mich. on the afternoon of June 11, I was not the most enthusiastic traveler in America.

True, I’d been invited to a weekend conference on “Democracy in America” at the gorgeous Fetzer Institute in western Michigan (an entity well known for trying to bring mind, body, and spirit together); and, true, the organizers had agreed to pay my way. And it was a relief to escape Washington D.C.’s appalling heat and humidity.

But like many activists my age, I felt I’d been through this movie once too many times before.

The picture

You know the movie I’m talking about.

Well-meaning organizers bring thinkers and activists together to start what everyone hopes will be a pathbreaking political organization.

The participants are too alienated from mainstream America to accomplish their goals (Students for a Democratic Society, 1960s), are too much in thrall to the traditional left to articulate imaginative goals (Democratic Socialists of America, 1970s), lack the discipline to accomplish their goals (New World Alliance, 1970s-80s), are too ambivalent about leadership and money to be more than a diversion (Greens, 1980s-2000s), or are too much like attack dogs to identify -- let alone address -- our real hopes and needs (MoveOn.org, 2000s).

But along the way, a mildly entertaining time is had by all.

On the airplane, I forced myself to finally set aside my hard-eyed book about how life really works, psychologist Robert Karen’s Top Dog / Bottom Dog, and pull out my folder full of materials about the conference.

What was it, I wondered, that had tempted me to take part in this movie again, this charade? I had literally forgotten and felt some obligation to my hosts to refresh my memory.

The purpose

I pulled out the statement of purpose for the conference. As soon as I started reading, I began to relax. Yeah, it was only words, but I’m not sure I could have concocted in my wildest dreams a better declaration of the political aspirations of this newsletter (or my book):

“The purpose of this gathering is to [initiate] a new kind of public conversation that moves us beyond polarization so we [can] effectively address the issues we care most about. . . .

“We all share the same ‘boat’ called the United States of America. It is more essential now than ever [that we] begin to learn how to row with, rather than against, each other. . . .

“Unlike [those at the upcoming] two major party conventions, we want to explore our differences, thoughtfully and respectfully, and learn from each other.

“We believe all concerned Americans have a piece of the answer, and that listening [to] and learning from each other -- even if difficult -- will make our country stronger and wiser.

“Our country needs that strength and wisdom now.”

Amen, I thought. I looked out the airplane window and saw, through the clouds, the shimmering green-and-yellow landscape of the upper Midwest, where I’d grown up so full of hopeful longings, and turned to the rest of the materials.

The promise

I finally read closely enough to discern that the conference had two co-sponsors, and they made a politically balanced pair:

Let’s Talk America is dedicated to inspiring multi-partisan conversations in cafes, bookstores, and living rooms across America. It’s a product of the Utne Institute, non-profit spinoff of the vaguely leftist Utne Magazine, and other groups.

The Democracy in America Project is dedicated to helping Americans discover the “unifying principles” we all share. It’s the brainchild of Joseph McCormick, graduate of Virginia Military Institute and Yale, former U.S. Army officer, and former Republican Congressional candidate from Georgia.

The two groups were apparently savvy enough to have succeeded in attracting 24 “opinion leaders” (their term) to the conference from wildly differing points of view. Some examples:

-- Gary Aldridge, FBI agent for over three decades and author of the notorious #1 bestseller, Unlimited Access: An FBI Agent Inside the Clinton White House (1996);

-- Carl Fillichio, lead spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor in the Clinton Administration;

-- Bill Thomson, National Field Director of the Christian Coalition;

-- Vicki Robin, well-known defender of countercultural extended families and co-author of the international bestseller Your Money or Your Life (1992);

-- David Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union;

-- Virginia Sloan, President of the Constitution Project (an increasingly influential left-leaning legal issues organization);

-- Bob Barr, board member of the National Rifle Association and former Republican Congressman from Georgia;

-- Shirley Wilcher, president of a diversity-and-affirmative-action consulting firm and founding member of the National Congress of Black Women.

Just dwelling on these folks and their (apparent) contrasts was enough to make my head spin!

The sponsors of the conference had already anticipated that “problem.” They’d rounded up not one but four facilitators -- another positive sign, I thought.

The lead facilitator would be Mark Gerzon of Boulder, Colo., who’s best known now for having facilitated the first two bipartisan Congressional retreats (in 1997 and 1999), and whose book A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Struggling for America’s Soul (1996) anticipated by eight years the synthesizing-and-transcending aspirations of the conference.

I’d first heard of Mark when his first article about New Age politics appeared in the New Age Journal in 1977 . . . one month before my first article on the subject appeared there.

By the time the plane landed, I was ac- tually looking forward to the conference.

The process

Although participants insisted that their individual sayings and doings not be reported, I can report to you this much:

The conference worked.

And it wasn’t just because of the exquisite accommodations and wonderful food.

On Friday night, we broke into three groups (of eight participants and one facilitator each) to discuss such questions as, What did you understand about being an American when you were 12 years old? How have you experienced political differences and how did that affect you personally?

It was impossible to participate in that exercise without coming to see (and feel and know) that every participant, whatever their politics, was a complex and caring human being.

On Saturday morning we pondered what was missing in conventional political discourse. Then, many of us shared what we were already doing to create a better discourse, and the examples were extraordinary -- from an ambitious and politically sophisticated project to educate girls and women in developing nations (“Educate Girls Globally”), to an ambitious and politically sophisticated effort to facilitate deliberative meetings for 500 to 5,000 participants (“America Speaks”), to an ambitious and media-savvy effort to get interviews with hundreds of cutting-edge innovators onto radio stations and the Internet (“New Dimensions Radio”).

We broke up into two groups -- one to think about innovative decision-making processes, another to think about innovative approaches to a public policy issue (education) -- and we came back together again psyched, ready to rumble.

The problem -- resolved

But then, very suddenly, all “progress” stopped and our mood took a turn for the worse.

Someone tried to classify participants’ approaches as “left” or “right.” Someone on the right took umbrage with that, feeling that the qualities cited as “right” were insulting stereotypes; and that pressed many people’s buttons; and round and round and round we went, and the afternoon shadows grew longer.

But the end result of that conversation is we all realized -- I mean, we all really “got” -- how misleading and even infantilizing the old political spectrum had become.

And after dinner that night the facilitators got us back on track. Numbers ending in “0,” from “0” to “10” to “20” and on through “100,” were taped in a long row to the floor at the front of the conference room; and we were told that the numbers would stand for our ages; and we were urged to volunteer to walk down the numbers and share the key decisions we’d made in our political lives . . . in the present tense: as if we were making those decisions out loud and in front of everyone.

Everyone stared, some of us open-mouthed, as various “left”-wingers and “right-” wingers, former Weather Underground supporters and former speakers at white racist gatherings, shared the incidents that shaped their lives.

And revealed without even trying that every caring person is a brother or sister under the skin.

And that our values are at some deep level fundamentally the same.

The program

Sunday morning was in some sense an anticlimax (how could it be anything but?), but it was uniquely task-oriented, and after two days of psychological preparation quite a bit got done.

It was decided that we’d all join the advisory boards of the two co-sponsoring organizations (Let’s Talk America and Democracy in America). Immediately those boards became the most politically diverse boards in America.

It was decided that the two organizations would convene a follow-up conference for hundreds of participants some time this fall (with funding to come from three left-wing groups, three right-wing groups, and a “bridging” grant from Fetzer).

It was decided that many of us would initiate political conversations in our professional or geographic communities, and invite participants to the follow-up conference.

It was decided that many other good people would be invited to the conference, ranging from Washington, D.C.-based opinion leaders to busy professionals to grassroots organizers.

It was strongly suggested that an attempt should be made to attract approx. 1/3 right of center participants, 1/3 left of center, and 1/3 moderates and independents -- with due “consideration for regional, gender, and racial balance.”

It was strongly suggested that a “consensus statement of American goals and priorities” be prepared during or after the conference, by functional area -- “governance and law,” “learning and education,” etc. (None dared call it a political platform.)

It was even suggested that the statement be used to ignite a “thirdside voice” inside the political arena.

The pledge

Before leaving, we all signed our names to a document titled “We the People.” Many of us signed with flourishes, as if we were signing something akin to the Declaration of Independence. Here are the key passages:

“We respect our differences and recognize America needs every one of our viewpoints, ideas, and passions -- even those we don’t agree with -- to keep our democracy vital and alive;

“We recognize that meeting here and across our land for dialogues across differences builds trust, understanding, respect, and empowerment -- the conditions necessary for freedom and democracy to live in us and around us;

“And, therefore, each still grounded in our own considered views (conscience and convictions), we commit ourselves and our communities of interest to foster dialogue across the many divides in America, in large and small groups, to build trust, insight, and inspired action toward the more perfect union we all desire” [italics added - ed.].

The postmortem

None of us knew how far our momentum would carry us over the next few months. To a large extent it depended on the competence (and fundraising prowess) of the two sponsoring organizations.

And there were many pressing questions left unanswered. Some were relatively trivial: should the follow-up conference be held in Springfield, Illinois (where Lincoln allegedly walks at midnight), or in some larger and more accessible place? Should the conference be held in early fall or late fall?

Other questions were anything but trivial. The main one was, is, and always will be, Is it reasonable to expect that significant representatives of the left, right, and center can join together, synthesize their best wisdom, and create new processes and public policies that speak to our needs in the 21st century?

I’ve spent the last six years fashioning process and policy suggestions along those lines. So have many other authors.

But in the end, publications are only a catalyst and supplement. They are no substitute for people coming together, organizing a movement, and electing principled candidates to office.

Will the efforts of Let’s Talk America and Democracy in America Project bear fruit? I do not know.

But for the first time in many years, I feel enthusiastic enough about an incipient political movement to want to put my shoulder to the wheel.

(Which is not to say I didn’t continue reading Robert Karen’s Top Dog / Bottom Dog on the flight back to D.C.)



For more information: Democracy in America Project

For another independent, first-hand account of the conference: Tom Atlee, "A Personally Transformative Encounter of Left and Right"



This initiative has become the organization Reuniting America.  In August 2006 I wrote another article about it HERE, and the Reuniting America leadership wrote a lengthy response to that article HERE.


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