Hot on the Trail of Democracy in America
by Dan Shaw
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in 1835 and 1840; in 2003, Joseph McCormick followed in his footsteps, asking questions of the citizens and of public figures on all sides, questions about freedom, equality, unity and democracy in America. He spoke to Ralph Nader, ACLU, Noam Chomsky, and to seasoned conservatives including Reagan press secretary Lyn Nofziger and American conservative Union chairman Dave Keene. Some of those interviews are available at http://www.youtube.com/Reunitingamerica. The content of these interviews is interesting, but what is even more compelling is the development of a social movement of transpartisanism that Joseph has tapped into with his project, Reuniting America.
While both parties are guided by laudable ideals, the shortcomings of the two-party system, and the presence everywhere of dysfunctional partisanism is decried by politicians and citizens on all sides. Reuniting America sets a shining example by putting transpartisan principles into practice on both local and national levels. In just four years since Joseph began his project, he has had remarkable successes. To name just a few, Al and Tipper Gore attended a three-day Reuniting America retreat, Christian Coalition began to work with Moveon.org on the issue of net neutrality, and hundreds of citizens have met locally for transpartisan dialogue.
To what does Reuniting America owe its success? In some part, because Joseph himself by the sincerity of his questions and the depth of his listening, meshes with people on all sides, so that all thought of partisanism and even transpartisanism is forgotten. But the far greater part of the success of Reuniting America results from a widespread and rational dissatisfaction with the degree to which people and groups appear polarized. After all, in reality, people's opinions on specific issues fall all along a broad spectrum from "conservative" to "liberal", and relatively few people are at the extreme ends of the curve.
Joseph's story of how he came to the middle from the so-called conservative right, deserves mention. The son of a service man, Joseph was impressed at a young age by the feeling of respect for the men and the flag of a military parade, and he also served. Joseph ran for Congress in Georgia, and won the primary. But when a substantial amount of money came to his opponent from outside the district and he lost, he needed time to reevaluate. He was probably as surprised as anyone to end up in retreat for a year at a monastery. He came out of that retreat with tremendous zeal for his new transpartisan mission. Somewhat tall, balding, and with wire-rim glasses, Joseph is remarkably quiet and deferential for a leader of a national social movement. But this movement, even though looking at times like a town hall, is not like any movement you've ever seen before, and it seems that Joseph doesn't play by any of the old rules.
Joseph McCormick is not a candidate, and Reuniting America is not a party, or an issue. Candidates and issues come and go and sometimes come again. Transpartisanism is a context, an environment in which an effective political discourse can take place. It is free of any content. Reuniting America hosts citizen and leader dialogues on broad topics such as energy and security, but the agenda is set by the participants, not by the host. As convener of these dialogues, town halls, and conversation cafés, Reuniting America provides the place and opportunity for people on all sides to come together and to learn to use tools for effective dialogue within their organization and in coalitions.
Searching for the root of democracy, Joseph found that language and dialogue are foundational. Words such as freedom, liberty, equality, democracy, and republic mean totally different things to different people. Even experienced mediators have to learn to use new, neutral terms to work in the field of transpartisan dialogue.
Certain principles of dialogue are as old as Western civilization and others are as new as ning.com. Reuniting America is working with both. The former I wrote about in my book review, Democracy is Possible, Here’s How: How People Harness their Collective Wisdom and Power to Construct the Future in Co-Laboratories of Democracy. (Ning.com is a social networking website, so-called Web 2.0.) Joseph is working with the best people to use the web to build transpartisan consensus, including moveon.org, and Howard Dean's former internet campaign manager, ?***.
Joseph's optimism is contagious. He feels that when people from all sides gather to decide on political action, with the right tools, this cross-section of citizens can come to a resolution that 80% of people agree with. He's seen it work at Reuniting America events, and refers to Locating Consensus for Democracy: A Ten-Year U.S. Experiment Public Interest Polling. Another example might be Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, flawed as it was.
Joseph envisions such gatherings evolving into an ongoing movement of citizen engagement in communities across the country. Reuniting America plans to hold one such summit at Springfield, site of Lincoln’s speech, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Like many countries, the US is apparently severely divided along many lines, not only North-South as it has been since the Civil War. Though some say that the “Red-Blue” divide is not nearly so great as the parties and the media make it out to be.
But what happens when you get people together from all sides to talk about a highly charged political issue? How do you get people to open up? Reuniting America events sometimes start with people in small groups of five or six, talking about an early experience that shaped their spiritual and political values. People come to see that even people with opposing political viewpoints share some of their values, and they are able to see beyond the simplistic labels of conservative, liberal, right, left, etc. By the end of gathering, the participants have not only learned more about other points of view and their neighbors in the community, but they have also learned and practiced new techniques of dialogue that they can take back to their families, their organizations and their communities.
If you are interested in holding a transpartisan dialogue in your area, Reuniting America can assist you. And there are many other transpartisan organizations, and even partisan organizations coming together on specific issues. Reuniting America welcomes contact from all organizations to share these transpartisan skills. Like the transpartisan movement itself Reuniting America is continually striving to define and fulfill its mission. The movement is young, and very few people have experience participating in Democratic dialogue.
God willing, there will always be people fervently fanning the flames of freedom and democracy, and as long as there are those people there is always hope. These ideals, and all ideals and values, make life worth living. We keenly feel their imperfection, their absence, their loss. In America, these ideals, though young, burn passionately in every rugged individual, just a few generations after the Revolution. It seems just a matter of time until the spark of transpartisanism ignites into a firestorm of citizen engagement.