Thursday, February 22, 2007


Common Ground for Revitalizing Democracy

Remember, these comments come from the summary report on the democracy forums held nationwide last year. The authors of the guide conclude the summary report but asking if there was any common ground among participants?

Yes. Forum participants shared these understandings:

• Something is fundamentally wrong with the way we live and that what’s wrong relates to what’s going on in Washington.
• People are less connected to their communities than they used to be, a reality that negatively affects not only the quality of life but also the democracy.
• People want public officials to be more accountable, but lack a clear sense about how to accomplish that goal.
• Many saw no entry point by which they could make a difference, especially in terms of national politics.
• People want to be more than passive spectators; they want to be deciders instead of bystanders, they want to have their voices legitimized and their concerns validated.
• Even some civically active participants professed to being shut out of venues they assumed to be “public spaces.”
• People yearn for something that’s been lost in public life and want to break down the isolation. They are looking for the ties that bind in a democratic society, a greater sense of “being in this together.”

Monday, February 12, 2007


The Role of Religion in Democracy

The Kettering Foundation’s report from public issue forums on revitalizing democracy in America has an entire section that deals with the role of religion in democracy. I’m going to include an portion of the report here:

While agreeing that broadly shared moral values are vital to a democratic society, participants shared a respect for, but no common conviction about the role of religious values in a diverse society. In the forums, some participants pointed to the decline in the moral behavior of political leaders as evidence of the need to bring religious values into politics.

Some agreed with a man in El Paso, Texas, “We could [use] … a bit more faith and morals … in the political structure.” Addressing a broader point, another man argued, “The underlying purpose [of separating church and state] is not to keep religion out of government; it’s to keep government out of religion.” An Atlanta woman agreed, saying, “I believe in the separation of church and state but not [a separation between] religion and state.”

Participants in fact seemed to agree that a healthy democratic society stands on a bedrock of basic moral values shared by the populace. Within this context, many said these values stem from religion. A woman in a Los Angeles forum said that religious morals and ethics are “what make … the country better.… It makes us stronger.” Indeed, a few implied that religion is the sole source of such values like a woman in an Atlanta area forum who said, “Without religion, we don’t have any reason to do the right thing.”

But as the forums progressed, a tension emerged. On the one hand, some felt that the country has lost its moral bearings and that its public and private morality is not what it used to be. In a forum in El Paso, a man complained, “We have an absence of … morals [today].… [It’s] almost like the church, the values … [that] were the basis … [of American] democracy …[are] … no longer important; those things are passé.”

While some called for greater morality in the culture, others raised the flipside of the issue, saying “morality” is essentially a private matter. Participants in a Bowling Green, Ohio, forum asked, “How do we accommodate everyone with a uniform moral code when diversity is what makes this country so great?”

Others were uncomfortable trying to impose one set of moral values on a vast nation, saying they did not want to exclude those with different cultures, backgrounds, or viewpoints. A South Dakota man illustrated the point:

“I have a problem anytime somebody starts to impose their values on me.…What’s appropriate for one person to believe is … not necessarily [appropriate]for another.”

Is it public or private morality? What do you think?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


The Roots of Our Trouble

This summary text is from the national report on forums dealing with issue of revitalizing our democracy.

As they deliberated, people struggled to identify the underlying causes of their alienation and disaffection.

They talked about a loss of public space, including the design of many communities: subdivisions without sidewalks, gated communities, and the loss of areas where citizens meet informally and talk about whatever’s on their mind, including community problems and political issues. More and more Americans—and more and more children—are withdrawing, they noted, living in cocoons, content to stay home, indoors instead of being active in their community.

Participants felt that Americans today focus far too much on their rights and not enough on their responsibilities.

Some felt that our children’s moral values are at risk, adding they had questions about values education in the public schools. They also were troubled about how to balance their commitment to diversity with their own rock-hard traditional, moral values. The media, some argued, exacerbate people’s alienation in several ways including cynical reporting that in turn increases cynicism, and a focus on the divisions among us, which increases polarization.

When they turned to the political system, participants almost threw up their hands in despair. Money talks, they asserted; the system responds to special interests, not the broad, general public interest; the average citizen has no voice and is unrepresented. The idea of genuine reform is a fantasy they said, because those who are expected to enact the reforms are the ones who benefit from the status quo.

Moving Forward

At the end of these forums on democracy’s challenge, many concluded that their initial take was not quite right. At the beginning, they had seen this issue as something beyond their control—deteriorating moral values, a decline in community life, and an unresponsive political system are all something they felt powerless to affect. But by the end of the forums, many made connections—saw how community life relates to national affairs, how values education ties into community life, and how they both relate to what goes on in Washington.

And how all three add up to something larger than any of them. Not everyone felt this way, of course. Some left feeling as cynical and dispirited as when they came in.

Others left the forums “stewing” about the issue: more likely to see how some of the pieces fit, more aware of the trade-offs and conflicted about values: the role of the family, religion in politics, the role of the schools, community involvement, public service, and money in politics.

But on the whole, these results suggest that a national dialogue focused on public involvement about this deeply troubling issue might be the key to reducing the alienation, mistrust, and cynicism that are so widespread. Public deliberation just might rejuvenate the hope and public-mindedness that typify the nation at its best because by the end of the forums, some participants—although by no means all of them— concluded that they, after all, had a significant role to play in dealing with the issue.

By the end of the forums and after their long deliberations, some claimed the issue as their own: this is “our” problem not “their” problem, they said. Democracy’s challenge is a challenge facing citizens like ourselves.

For more on this issue check out

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