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.

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