Yearning For Democracy

Americans care deeply about public life and civic culture -
they just need to be invited into the conversation

One of the articles in Reclaiming Politics (IC#30)
Originally published in Fall/Winter 1991 on page 14
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute


"The largest party in America today," says Bill Moyers, "is neither the Democrats nor the Republicans. It is the party of the wounded." Moyers is perhaps our most highly acclaimed journalist, responsible – through series such as "A World of Ideas" and the phenomenally popular interviews with the late Joseph Campbell – for catalyzing a significant part of contemporary American conversation. He recently delivered the keynote address to the Democratic Issues Conference of the National Legislative Education Foundation, a gathering of Democratic leaders in the US Senate and House of Representatives, from which the following is excerpted. The complete text originally appeared in Connections, May 1991 issue ($24/year from PO Box 368, Slingerlands, NY 12159-0368).

What a relief to know that someone like Moyers can stand before such an august body and say this: "Fearful and alone, we seek refuge in the uncomfortable lie rather than face the uncomfortable truth. The lie is John Wayne. The truth is Woody Allen."

We live in a very collective, very organized society in which we are all connected, in which the welfare and safety of each one of us is dependent on the health and welfare of a cooperative and collective enterprise. Government has become bigger and more centralized, not because we have become careless of our freedoms or morally lazy in our commitment to individual values, but because the important tasks that need to be done in our nation today are beyond the reach of single men and women. Making our society work – the flourishing of civilization – is everyone’s business. It’s what we do. Our individual freedom depends upon our participating membership in democracy.

Yet if you travel the country today, as I do, you hear in person what the pollsters reduce to percentages. People believe their government and its policy makers have failed them – that the system no longer produces solutions to the problems that face us. They are talking about the fact that schools are not adequately educating their children, that the environment is going unprotected, that year after year the federal deficit grows, that the cost of health care endangers their economic security, that unmanageable economic development threatens the quality of life of their communities.

These are the familiar complaints of a restless electorate. But beneath the general buzz, you can, by listening intently, hear something else. You can hear people say that it’s not just new legislation or more programs that will make the difference. What they want is to be invited into the conversation of democracy.

Partly this aspiration comes from watching a series of astonishing democratic movements topple dictatorships from Latin America to Europe, movements fired by a vision of citizens as actors in the drama of history. In contrast, what we get here in America is the continuing monopoly of experts and insiders – professional communicators in advertising, public relations, lobbying and the media – packaging and promoting ideas in an effort to engineer the consent of the governed. In this model, the experts operate on the premise that they alone possess the necessary knowledge to shape the policies on which they seek consensus. They assume that the public, in its ignorance of the issues, has little of value to contribute to formulating policies; that people then need to be educated so they can better understand and support the experts’ conclusions.

Suppose we did it differently. Suppose we acted as if the public was no fiction and actually we treated democracy as a two-way conversation.

Once upon a time, this was the case. Towns were small, and taverns, inns, coffee houses, street corners, and the public greens – the Commons – were places where people gathered to discuss the news and issues of the day. Out of such exchanges, we’re told by James Carey, came "much of the commonplace community development which preceded the Revolution and later proved to be essential to the governance of the city." These places provided the underlying social fabric of the town and when the Revolution began, "made it possible to quickly gather militia companies, to form effective committees of correspondence, and to organize town meetings."

Suppose we tried to involve the public all over again – from the ground up – in a frank dialogue? The truth is, as the Kettering Foundation report says, Americans want to play a constructive role. They want places where they can learn and talk about issues facing them and their country. They want policy makers, the media, and others to hear what they have to say, and they need to know that if they participate, there is at least the possibility that they will be able to help create change. [See "Citizens and Politics" on page 23.]

What is needed, then, is a new political compact – to reconnect the citizens and politics, government and the people.

As I listen to America, I find that beneath this troubled view of politics is an America that cares deeply about public life and our civic culture. There is a great reservoir of creativity, common sense, and energy in the country. Let me give you a few examples of this yearning.

During the Bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987, my associates and I produced a PBS series about the significance of the Constitution in contemporary life. Several members of the Supreme Court participated, and our documentaries also included legal scholars, historians, philosophers, and "ordinary" citizens who had exercised their First Amendment rights. Among the thousands of letters we received when the series ended was one from a housewife in a Western state:

I have never written a letter like this before. I am a full-time wife and mother of four children under seven years and I am entirely busy with the ordinary things of family life. However, I want to thank you very much for "In Search of the Constitution." As a result of this series, I am awakened to a deep appreciation of many ideals vital to our democracy. I am much moved by the experience of listening at the feet of thoughtful citizens, justices, and philosophers of substance. All these are people with whom I will never converse on my own, and I am grateful to you for having brought these conversations within my sphere. I am aware that I lack eloquence to express the measure of my heart’s gratitude. I can say, however, that these programs are a landmark among my life’s experiences. Among all the things I must teach my children, a healthy interest in understanding the Constitution now ranks very prominently. Thank you.

Thousands of letters also poured in following another series based on Mortimer Adler’s book Six Great Ideas. In devoting an hour to each of the ideas Adler had examined – liberty, justice, equality, truth, beauty, and goodness – we filmed a spirited debate between the opinionated philosopher and several educators, business executives, writers, lawyers, poets, and jurists. Of the letters provoked by the series, here is my favorite:

Dear Dr. Adler: I am writing on behalf of a group of construction workers (mostly, believe it or not, plumbers!) who have finally found a teacher worth listening to. While we cannot all agree whether or not we would hire you as an apprentice, we can all agree that we would love to listen to you during our lunch breaks. I am sure that it is just due to our well-known ignorance as tradesmen that not a single one of us had ever heard of you until one Sunday afternoon when we were watching public television and Bill Moyers came on with SIX GREAT IDEAS. We listened intensely and soon became addicted and have been ever since. We never knew a world of ideas existed. The study of ideas has completely turned around our impression of education. We only wish we had not wasted 25-35 years in the process. But we do have you to thank for the next 35-40 years that we have before us to study and implement the great ideas into our lives and into the lives of our communities. We have grown to love the ideas behind our country’s composition, and since reading and discussing numerous of your books, we have all become devout Constitutionalists. We thank you and we applaud you. We are certain that the praise of a few plumbers could hardly compare with the notoriety that you deserve from distinguished colleagues but we salute you just the same. One last thought – we may be plumbers during the day, but at lunch time and at night and on the weekends, we are Philosophers at Large. God bless you!

A final example: In 1980, PBS commissioned a series about the political campaigns. My colleagues and I set out to cover the election with respect for the whole motion of the race and not just the impassioned moments of conflict and controversy. Among the outpouring of letters generated by the series was this one from a man in Colorado:

Your series accomplished the impossible. As a sixties college graduate, disillusioned Vietnam combat veteran, embittered anti-war author, and indifferent citizen, I never though I’d see the day when I’d register to vote, much less enter a voting chamber. But yesterday I registered and November 4, I’ll vote. The series spurred me to again participate in our democracy. Thanks. It’s good to be back.

What these letters suggest is that people want to signify morally and they want their country to signify morally, too. Vaclav Havel talks about this when he says there is a need "to inject ideas of spirituality, mutual understanding, and mutual tolerance into the affairs of state." Such ideas exposed the hollowness of Marxist shibboleths and forged the resistance to one-party domination. They kept alive the notion of a participatory public, of people accountable for their own destiny.

In our own country, I find that three of the most important stories of our time are emerging in the intersection between the secular and the spiritual, between God and politics.

One is the attempt to find a new vision for America which has the authority and power of a religious vision but which is inclusive, not sectarian. Something is emerging that is not yet articulated in public policy. It is hinted at in the ecological vision which people talked about once they had seen the Earth from outer space. But the ecological impulse has not moved yet from piety to public policy. At its best, religion’s great accomplishment has been to create social bonds based on love and justice and mutual respect rather than necessity and law. In a society pluralistic and secular, what gives us now that energizing and organizing vision?

The second story is the groping to rewrite our own history so that we can tell the truth about America and still be proud of the country. Somewhere between the righteous right and the critical left is a real country people can recognize and attempt to improve but which, nonetheless, can provide the healthy ground for being honest with ourselves.

Also emerging is the question: How can we be properly enthusiastic – that is, "filled with God" – without denying mind or matter? What does it mean to be inspired? There is a hunger for a vision; otherwise Jim and Tammy Baker would not have been so successful, and the revelations about John F. Kennedy would have destroyed the hold his memory has over people, and we would not invest so much transcendental significance in a triumph of overwhelming technology and unchallenged power over a country no bigger than Texas and with roughly the same number of people, ruled by a paranoid psychopath who proved to be a coward.

In other words, how is our pride to be justly sustained and our hunger suitably filled?

The answer, I suggest, exists within our tradition – if only we can recover it and apply it to our times.

A journalist, I’ve often said, is a professional beachcomber on the shores of other people’s wisdom. I want to share with you an insight I owe to a young writer named Michael Ventura, who lives in California:

The dream we must now seek to realize, the new human project, is not "security," which is impossible to achieve on the planet Earth in the latter half of the 20th century. It is not "happiness," by which we generally mean nothing but giddy forgetfulness about the danger of all our lives together. It is not "self-realization," by which people usually mean a separate peace. There is no separate peace … The real project is to realize that technology has married us all to each other…that until we are more courageous about this new marriage – ourselves all intertwined – there will be no peace and the destination of any of us will be unknown… Men and women, black, brown, yellow, white, young and old… we must go wherever it is we are going together. There is no such thing as being alone. If we are the only one in the room, it is still a crowded room. But we are all together on this planet, you, me, us: inner, outer, together, and we’re called to affirm our marriage vows. Our project is to learn how to consummate, how to sustain, how to enjoy this most human marriage – all parts, all of us.

The party that translates this vision into politics will become the party of the 21st century.

Citizens And Politics:
The Kettering Report

In 1990 and 1991 the Harwood Group, a small public issues research firm, convened ten focus groups scattered widely around the US. They then asked each group’s very diverse participants what they thought about politics. Unlike conventional polling, a focus group study allows participants to talk with each other about the questions, discuss their views, and describe what they think and feel in their own words.

The results of this particular study – sponsored by the non-profit Kettering Foundation and released under the title "Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America" – sent shock waves from the media to the White House. In short, the Harwood Group reported that Americans were not at all apathetic about politics and public life. They were simply disgusted.

At issue was conventional political wisdom – e.g., that people don’t care to think about complex policy issues, or that they will pay attention to news only when it’s delivered in quick sound-bites. In practically every case, citizens turned the cynicism of conventional "wisdom" on its head.

Is the concept of civic duty dead? Are people no longer willing to dig into the issues, debate them, make some hard decisions? Would they just prefer that their elected representatives do the job they were elected to do (in the course of an entertainingly vitriolic campaign) and leave people to consume in peace? The answer from study participants was a resounding "No!"

Citizens, by and large, believe there has been "a hostile takeover of politics by special interests and lobbyists (along with negative campaigns and the media)." They care about politics, but they no longer believe they can have a meaningful impact on the political scene. They look upon the avenues for input available to them as "window dressings," not serious attempts to hear what they have to say.

Perhaps the study’s most encouraging finding is that Americans are not inactive in public life; they have just shifted their activism to areas where they believe they can make a difference, especially at the community level. They’re joining neighborhood associations, getting involved in schools, arguing over local government issues. However, they refuse to associate this activity – or themselves – with politics, which they view as a corrupt system spiraling out of control.

Americans want to have "a real voice in politics," concludes the Kettering Report. "The challenge before us today is to reconnect citizens and politics – to find a place for citizens in the political process." The message to professional politicos, power brokers and spin doctors from Main Street Americans is loud and clear: "Move over."

– Alan AtKisson

For a free copy of "Citizens and Politics," contact the Kettering Foundation at 200 Commons Road, Dayton, OH 45459, Tel. 800/221-3657.

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