Thursday, October 26, 2006

Two more submissions from readers that bear repeating for the purpose of further discussion. In regard to democracy having a moral foundation, this from an unknown reader:

No one said it better than John Adams: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other."

Then, this regarding the need for a moral foundation to our society and democracy, also submitted by an unnamed reader:

Every society has two choices: whether ir wants to be ruled by an authoritarian ruler or whether there can be a set of shared values and certain things we hold in common that give us the philosophical underpinnings of our value system in our life.

Without that value system a society cannot exist.

The reason we have the most terrible crime problem in the word in America today is simple: we've lost our moral consensus. We are people living for ourselves.

What are your thoughts and comments?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Can ethics be democratic?

Another unnamed blogger posted this comment last week. I think it deserves to be shared with the entire readership.

Ethics is not, cannot be, democractic. Ethics by its very definition is authoritarian. Ethical standards do not change. Morals change all of the time. So, with shifting morals, if 90 percent of the people say that it is all right to do this, then that must be perfectly all right to do because 90 percent of the people say it is. It is a very democratic nation.

Ethics, by contrast, are set in stone.

Any thoughts or comments as they related to discussion should be posted here.

Are American's self obsessed?

I've received many interesting posts to this blog over the last few weeks. Several of them, I think, bear repeating here in order to foster further discussion.

This one from an unnamed blogger:

Reinventing citizenship? You are missing the point I think.

Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote a book titled "Habits of the Heart" Bellah examined the values of several hundred average, middle-class Americans. He came to the conclusion that the reigning ethos in American life in the 1980s was what he called "ontological individualism." This is a radical individualism where the individual is supreme and autonomous and lives for himself or herself. He found that Americans had two overriding goals: vivid personal feelings and personal success.

Bellah tired to find out what people expected from the institutions of society. From business they expected personal advancement. Okay, that’s fair enough. From marriage, the wanted personal development. No wonder marriages are in trouble. And from church, personal fulfillment! Unfortunately, the personal became the dominate consideration.

This self obsession destroys character and without citizens with character, our democracy is doomed!

What do you think? Please share your comments here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Approach two: Reinventing Citizenship, part II

Reinventing citizenship

The underlying problem isn’t erosion of the values on which democracy relies, but rather the loss of civic habits and skills. As advocates of this approach see it, democracy consists primarily of common experiences and civic practices, which take place most of the time in local groups and associations—the YMCA, the Rotary Club, Boy Scouts, church groups, charity organizations, and groups that form spontaneously to address community problems.

It’s essential, say advocates of this second approach, to recognize the key role played by these small, less formal organizations and associations that are closer to home. By participating in these local associations, most Americans gained an apprenticeship in public life.

Citizenship refers not to abstract membership in some group but to practical, repeated involvement in public problem solving. It is not something that we are, or that we have, but something that we do. It presumes a set of common experiences, the recognition of common interests, and the willingness to search for common ground.

It refers, most of all, to certain skills that are essential in identifying public problems and deciding what to do about them.

From the perspective of this second approach, the most troubling symptom of our public problems and the main reason we are unable to solve pressing problems is that the fabric of local associations has been unraveling and citizenship itself has lost its meaning.

As Frances Moore Lappe and Paul Martin DuBois, founders of the Center for Living Democracy, observe, “When we chisel through to the single largest barrier blocking solutions to the multitude of issues facing us, what we find is the impoverished problem-solving capacity of our people. None of our society’s most daunting problems—from poverty to the environment, from racism to crime—can be addressed from the top down.”

The public square has emptied, in other words, because many Americans aren’t making the civic connections that form the habits and sharpen the skills of citizenship.

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, October 12, 2006


America's social circles are shrinking

Perhaps this is part of the reason that our democracy needs to be revitalized? A recent study published in American Sociology Review, says in 1985 the average American had three people in his/her closest intimate circles.

Now, nearly 20 years later, that number has dropped to two. In 2004, one in four said they have no close confidants at all, compared with one in 10 in 1985.

Basically, Americans have one-third fewer close friends and confidants than just two decades ago and the number of people who have none has more than doubled -- another sign we may be living lonelier lives.

Studies have linked isolation and loneliness to mental and physical illnesses. Not to mention the fact that it runs counter to what is needed for an active democracy and citizenry.

The percentage of people, according to this same study, who confided only in family increased from 57 percent to 80 percent.

The number of Americans who depend totally on a spouse is up from 5 percent to 9 percent.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, October 06, 2006


Another view on democracy from an editor

We will get back to Approach Two after learning more about a forum in Iowa on this same topic.

An article by Carol Hunter about a National Issues Forum (NIF) held at the Des Moines Central Library in Des Moines, Iowa, was published at on July 30, 2006. The article describes a public deliberative forum that was held earlier in July using the NIF issue discussion guide Democracy's Challenge: Reclaiming the Public's Role. About 60 people participated in the forum that was convened by Iowa Partners in Learning.

Here is what Carol Hunter had to say ...

Hunter: Increase citizen involvement by fostering thoughtful dialogue

A sunny Saturday morning two weekends ago beckoned young and old alike to come outside to play.

Yet about 60 Iowans volunteered to spend their time in a meeting room inside the Des Moines Central Library, lured by a higher purpose: reinvigorating our democracy.

The event was a forum conducted by Iowa Partners in Learning, a member of the National Issues Forums Institute's network. Participants discussed the proposition that frustration with gridlock and partisanship have prompted many Americans to tune out on public life. That trend is seen in everything from low voter participation to lack of interest in running for school boards or city councils.

The format followed by National Issues Forums is to give participants reading material that lays out an issue in an even-handed, nonpartisan way and outlines multiple ways to approach it. At the Des Moines forum, participants discussed three broad approaches to reclaiming the public's role in democracy: rebuilding democracy's moral foundation; re-forming the web of citizen connections in clubs, religious groups and local associations; and increasing the public's role versus powerful special interests by measures such as campaign-finance reform. Specific steps were recommended to further each approach. Groups of eight to 10 people discussed the merits and drawbacks of each.

The rub came with the specifics. In discussing the approach emphasizing democracy's moral foundation, participants in the group I observed balked at a recommendation to tighten divorce laws. But several liked a recommendation to integrate character education into school curriculums. Others, however, were skeptical: "Not sure common values can be agreed upon," one participant wrote afterward.

Too often at public gatherings today, elected representatives and members of the public alike seem mostly interested in speaking their minds, and much less interested in listening as others speak theirs. Framing the discussion around varied approaches forces participants to think through the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives.

"People came in with some very passionate ideas," said participant David Johns, coordinator for the humanities curriculum at Des Moines schools. But the process of working through the three approaches "helps people focus their position."

Making progress on complex issues is "about meeting people halfway sometimes," he said, or perhaps about starting with agreement on "a subset of ideas." Participants in his group approached the day's issue from varied perspectives, but found common ground in believing that people should seek out different perspectives in different media.

Johns is exploring the idea of using the National Issues Forums format in high school courses such as social studies. Teachers could collaborate to research and write up varied approaches to issues important to students, such as the minimum wage, teen driving restrictions or the draft, and then guide students through discussing them.

There's a possibility the format could make its way into class discussions at Drake University, too. Part of Drake's mission statement is to prepare students for "responsible global citizenship."

Participant Lon Larson, a Drake pharmacy professor who teaches courses in health policy, found that conferring on three sometimes overlapping approaches, each with potentially beneficial elements, "leads to a much more nuanced discussion. It can be an excellent way to get at the complexities of the issues."

He foresees the potential for faculty to use the format in efforts to help students become more engaged citizens.

It's a concept worth considering by school boards, city councils and other bodies, too. Participants clearly thought their voices weren't being heard, even on the local level. Several participants complained that their congressman's "listening sessions" have turned into speeches about what he's doing, and the public's comments seem to go nowhere. And they believe school board members, councilmen and legislators have their minds made up before getting constituents' input at public hearings.

Why not foster thoughtful public discussion of thorny issues such as city budget priorities or property-tax reform before motions are drawn up or bills drafted? Our communities and our democracy would be stronger for it.

So if everyone loves the concept, why are more groups not doing it? In five years I've never gotten a newspaper interested in sponsoring a forum but I suspect that may have more to do with shrinking staffs than anything else. What do you think?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


A reader responds: What is citizenship

Approach One of the "revitalizing democracy" discussion had only a few comments in the course of two weeks. But already, Approach two has gotten several comments and we are not even into the meat of the topic. This post today, submitted by an unknown reader, I thought would be useful to throw out for more general discussion.

Here is is:

Money and power is what politics and citizenship has become all about.

Politicians will do anything to retain power and money (for themselves or the party). It is all about self-interests.

Interestingly, most American citizens are no different. Citizens will vote for anything if it benefits them individually. That is why senior citizens vote against school taxes (won't help them) but push for increased social security payments and prescription coverage even though both of them are huge expenditures.

We criticize our government for not thinking ahead but most Americans are not better. We vote and act based on short term gains instead of long-term impact.

Citizenship is more than just showing up to vote. Citizenship has to involve understanding the need to "establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty."

None of these things say the work has to be done by the government and none of items require us to make money or gain power as individuals.

What is best for the entire society and culture? That is the question of citizenship and many American's can no longer answer it because they are solely focused on self.

What say you?

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