Labor Day weekend is over, and the Election 2016 countdown is going into overdrive. We’re all going to work hard for our chosen candidates of course, but is there any realistic hope that after November 8 our national political life will move beyond the bitter, paralyzed disagreement we have now? Today the scene looks nothing like some relatively recent cooperative eras in our history. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, in 1973 President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, with support from both sides of the aisle. In 1997 the so-called “CHIP” bill to help poor children get health care passed because Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and Hatch (R-UT) collaborated to get it through Congress. Then there’s the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, another joint effort by Congress members of opposing parties. These bills reflect a traditional American understanding of how we need to function as one national political family, a metaphor I’ve named the One Big Family Frame. Here’s a short quote about it, slightly updated, from previous pieces of mine on this topic:
“The One Big Family frame. . . implies a specific, historic American way
of communal problem solving: . . .‘pragmatic,’ ‘solution-oriented,’ ‘common sense,’
‘practical’. . . looking at what actually works and what doesn’t, emphasizing what we can
agree on, having a shared goal we work for even if our reasons for wanting the result
differ (for example, saving money vs helping people), working out a ‘rough consensus,’
and tolerating each other’s differences as part of a traditional American respect for
variety, individuality, and a legitimate difference of views.”
Doesn’t sound much like what’s happening now, does it? Yet deep in the American countryside, there is an important and growing phenomenon that is already bringing the “one big family frame” back to life. It’s a story seldom reported in the mainstream media, so saturated with election horror stories and dire predictions of what comes afterwards. So along with our election work, let’s spread some good news about the rebirth of grass roots bipartisanship happening in our country right now. We should start it “trickling up” before November 8. That extra bit of hope could also give us more creative juice after November 9, as we start pushing for a better world again.
Where to start telling the grass roots bipartisanship story? Earlier this year I cited a few examples and sources in my blog “U.S.A. 2016: Death Spiral or Rebirth?” from Mark Gerzon’s report on grass roots American bipartisans all over the country, The Reunited State of America. In that piece I mentioned one particular example of this new trend, which the media with its love of negatives and conflict doesn’t report. That example was The Bridge Alliance, a national group started by college students fed up with our hyperpartisan paralysis. But there’s even more exciting news now. This August Mark Gerzon, along with Joan Blades, Amanda Kathryn Roman, co-founders of Living Room Conversations and Stephen Dinan of the Shift Network, put together a free, four day online conference called The American Citizens Summit, based on Gerzon’s book. (You can sign up on the site for the next Summit.) This was followed by a multi-week week online training course on how to create local grass roots bipartisan efforts, led by experienced mediator Gerzon.
The conference sessions were rich with a variety of stories about local citizens reaching out to others in their own communities. Some hold conversations guided by ground rules like neighborly friendliness, respect, listening to others with an open mind, curiosity, fairness, and a thoughtful use of language (more on this point in a future post). These conversations can bear surprisingly powerful fruit. Joan Blades, co-founder of Living Room Conversations,(LRC) tells the story of how the growing national consensus about criminal sentencing reform grew out of one of the conversations she co-hosted with Mark Meckler, founder of the Tea Party Patriots. (You can find many other stories and even recorded sample conversations, plus directions and suggested topics on the LRC website.)
Other community level projects of this kind include The Village Square, founded by Liz Joyner in Tallahassee, Florida and now in other states too. Liz spoke of her successes with this approach, starting with local issues like parks or schools that don’t have an obvious partisan slant. Everyone agreed that after people get more comfortable with each other in person, advancing to fruitful conversations about more challenging issues works surprisingly well. A solutions focus, looking for areas of agreement, and serving food or snacks helps bring out the best in people. The conference included some actual examples of “transpartisan” conversations. The topics covered were homelessness, the future of defense, big money in politics, spiritual evolution and politics. It was intriguing to hear the way this thought-provoking format helped bring out a much wider range of ideas than we are used to hearing in political debate these days. And more ideas always lead to better solutions. One of our biggest problems today is that folks think they already know everything about an issue. The long overdue criminal justice reform effort going on in our country today is a good example of what can happen when people open up and begin looking deeper.
There’s another very handy place to get more ideas from a wide range of folks too. The conference included presentations from leaders who run online projects that help people get informed, connected, and into dialogue with each other. These “civic tech” sites include The Chisel, All Sides, and Democrosoft. The Chisel, taglined “Creating a More Perfect Union,” offers “trending proposals from nonpartisan groups” on a wide variety of issues for you to explore. You can join in a “conversation” about them online, and then vote. You can ask the experts questions, share stories, suggest improvements, or reply to another citizen or expert before deciding on your vote. You can even change your vote later. All Sides provides “diverse perspectives in news and issues,” and invites you to “engage in critical thinking and civil dialog.” They promise to provide multiple angles on every story, so you can quickly get the full picture, not just one slant.” Democrosoft is a provider of “social collaboration and voting platforms for online communities.” They offer four online collaboration applications found on a common platform called Collaborize. Their “flagship” education platform, Collaborize Classroom, provides curriculum and content delivery to students worldwide.
Of course, it takes time to engage in any of these activities, as well as some confidence that it will make a difference if we do. Helping citizens gain the skills and confidence to engage directly with their own local governments was another important thread in the conference. We heard leaders of regional, state, multi-state and national bipartisan outreach projects talk about how they help citizens and their political representatives learn to use a variety of tools for interacting more effectively with each other in order to get improved public policy. The Davenport Institute for Public Engagement, (at Pepperdine, CA) focuses on helping Californians learn to be more effective at the city, county, regional and nonprofit level, while Healthy Democracy includes the Citizens’ Initiative Review, a process for voters to get an honest, nonpartisan evaluation of ballot initiatives in an era when big money has radically skewed the PR about them. Beginning in Oregon, the Review now functions in Massachusetts and Arizona as well. The Participatory Budgeting Project works with local organizations and governments to change how public money is managed, by helping citizens get more direct say about what their public money buys. The Participatory Budgeting Project has been active in U.S. cities from San Francisco and Long Beach to St. Louis, Boston, and more. Then there’s the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC). They focus on improving “civic health,” that is, the health of citizens’ efforts to “define and address public problems.” They measure how much people trust their neighbors, get active in their communities, and interact with their local governments. The indexes the NCoC creates show what’s working and what’s not, and suggest ways to improve civic health.
All of the speakers on citizen empowerment agreed on one big thing that would improve American civic health right away: restoring Civics education to American schools. Making Democracy Fun: How Game Design Can Empower Citizens and Transform Politics, by Josh Lerner, might help make that happen. (Online resources for this book include a YouTube video as well.) All in all, the picture of grass roots bipartisanship thriving below the national radar was extremely encouraging. Two well-known journalists have also recently reported that people in the grass roots are not nearly so helpless, angry, despairing or depressed as the national media would have us believe. After a three year cross country investigative trip with his wife Deborah, James Fallows wrote about “How America is Putting Itself Back Together,” (for the March 2016 Atlantic ). Their research showed that a great many of our smaller cities and towns are actively engaged in a vigorous local renewal that includes economic, cultural, and civic projects, led by citizens who collaborate peaceably to solve their local problems. The big problem, Fallows notes, is that each place believes it is unique in this way, unaware that our grass roots, American “can do it together” spirit is a growing national trend right now.
“Solutions journalist” Sarah van Gelder, co-founder and editor at large of YES! Magazine, also discovered real news about what’s up in the American grass roots. Leaving in August 2015 for her own year-long, 18 state cross-country investigative tour, she found people all across the land collaborating to start local businesses, nonprofits, cooperatives, land trusts, food hubs, urban farms, and many other projects to revive their local economies and communities. But her most important observation may be noticing the empowering role of human-scale, civil, neighborly, face-to-face contact in dealing with local problems, so different from the over-simplified, abstract, and rigid world of national politics. (Sarah van Gelder has reported regularly all year for YES! Magazine about her findings, and her book, The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000 Mile Journey Through a New America, will be available on the YES! Magazine website by November 1, and in bookstores by January 9, 2017.)
The fact that all kinds of grass roots Americans are actually working together successfully to solve their problems puts to shame those national political power barons and media CEOs who try to exploit our differences in order to stop progress, for their own personal gain. Taken all together, this burgeoning American “reinvent it from the ground-up” movement is actually the perfect antithesis of the “break everything, do nothing, corporate-funded destroy government” wave that has paralyzed Washington for so many recent years. It proves that a new version of the One Big American Family frame is still alive, well, and getting back on its feet in our country, rooted in local ground, where real reform always starts in the U.S. We need to spread the word about this American rebirth everywhere, so that local folks learn that they are all actually part of a huge wave of American renewal, rising all over our country. We can help it get such a high profile that the media and our national politicians will be forced to take note and listen. There’s a mandate coming from real, down-home Americans for “solutions-focused” politics. And that’s exactly what it will take to move our country forward again. Let’s start getting the word out now, and then really pour it on after 11.08.16!
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, http://www.metaphorproject.org, and author of our book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong and check out her TEDx talk too.
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