Barrack Obama, in a thoughtful reflective conversation with my favourite American writer Marilynne Robinson, said that his biggest frustration as a politician was not being able to close the gap between the basic decency and essential goodness of the American people when he met them one on one and their behaviour when partisan political lines were drawn. It is a challenge that every democracy experiences. People who otherwise are caring and generous in their daily interactions all of a sudden become mean spirited and dogmatic. It is as if politics gives people permission to be ‘uncharitable’ and overly judgmental.
While we may sympathize with Obama’s frustration, it may be that politicians aren’t well suited to close the gap between our daily lives and our political lives. That’s a job for citizens. Politicians are locked into a system that has evolved to privilege conflict, ridicule, shock and disregard for the other’s point of view.
Citizens engage with each other without those filters. They volunteer and pitch in to help each other, their neighbourhoods and their communities. They don’t use partisan language in their daily dealings. They know each other’s worries and hopes. They learn to respect and trust each other. They care for each other. Of course, not everyone does but the majority do – 80% as a matter of fact. That makes caring the common ground of democracy.
Who better to set the table and to figure out ways of discussing and solving tough contentious issues than caring citizens?
That’s why citizens should take the reins in reforming their democracies. Some call this deliberative democracy – small groups of randomly selected citizens who meet regularly to deliberate on issues without defaulting to partisan habits. Politics not from above but from below. Not from outside (that is dismissing the democratic process) but from the inside (that is committed to healing our democracies.) Here and here are a couple of Canadian examples.
Next time you start to worry about the rise of populism don’t succumb to cynicism. Instead, seek out the democracy innovators in your midst. They are already hard at work creating consensus in your community on a range of issues. A consensus that is essential if we are to persuade politicians to change their behaviour and to make the bold, just and equitable political decisions our times require. Marilynne Robinson describes this work as a “resurrection of the ordinary.” Now that Obama has left office he might be ready to pitch in.
If we start from the premise that people are more curious than we give them credit for, and that they are kind — if we design for their better angels — then lo and behold, the phantom public that seems to haunt public discourse disappears. (Peter McLeod)