The road to the election: Discussing our politics

In the current campaign climate, we easily forget that voting makes little contribution to our public fabric, a fabric torn by distrust and antipathy that often characterize expansive and heterogeneous publics. Still, we mistakenly believe elections are the gold standard of democracy. Iraq, of course, has put the lie to that myth.

Voting can too easily be simply a private affair despite the fact it has public results. A well-known political philosopher, Benjamin Barber, rightly took a shot at America’s golden calf when he wrote: ” … our primary electoral act, voting, is rather like using a public toilet: we wait in line with a crowd in order to close ourselves up in a small compartment where we can relieve ourselves in solitude and in privacy of our burden, pull a lever, and then, yielding to the next in line, go silently home. Because our vote is secret … we do not need to explain it or justify it to others (or, indeed, to ourselves) in a fashion that would require us to think publicly or politically.”

But how do we come to “think publicly?” Acquiring “double vision” is a great place to start. Hannah Arendt, the great 20th century Jewish political theorist, believed that though humans naturally have difficulty empathizing since each of us stands with a tribe or in a tradition, we are still capable of “enlarged thinking”-the ability to understand and appreciate the perspective of “the other,” a public skill necessary to create and sustain public peace. Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf argues in Exclusion and Embrace that what God did in Jesus illustrated “double vision”-God enlarged God’s perspective by sharing the human experience. To acquire this “double vision,” we need conversation, even deliberation with other citizens.

Deliberative democracy organizations, like Deliberative Democracy Consortium, invite all kinds of people to sit around tables discussing public issues, giving voice and ear to the perspectives forged in a variety of walks of American life. Election caucuses also do this. Recently, California Speaks held state-wide meetings with over 3,500 people to have conversations over health care reform. California lawmakers asked for the proposals that came from those conversations to help them deliberate as they prepare to make health care reforms. This kind of public meeting better informs citizens’ policy perspectives and our political leaders, while it mends and nurtures the public fabric, making for a more robust, and therefore more genuine, democracy.

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