David Mathews on Deliberative Democratic Politics

David Mathews, longtime president and CEO of the Kettering Foundation, was interviewed recently by AL.com. In a brief passage, he gives perhaps the best and most concentrated description of deliberative democratic politics I have seen.

For those who have heard Dr. Mathews describe various aspects of democracy — its origins, how it can be seen as an ecology, the importance of seeing the tensions between things held deeply valuable — this may sound familiar. But in just a few paragraphs, much is conveyed.

Below is a brief passage (left) with commentary from me (right):

What we call democracy is really an accumulation of survival lessons over centuries.Democracy as emergent, organic (vs. built).
We learned that we had to come together to be safe and be successful.Origin of collective security as a key thing held valuable.
We learned that we had to be free to do what we felt like we needed to do.Origin of freedom to act as a key thing held valuable.
We learned that we couldn’t really work together unless we divided what we had produced equitably amongst all the people. Because if we didn’t, they’d leave the tribe and next time we went out to bring down a big chunk of protein with four hooves, they weren’t the meal, we were the meal, because we were too small and frail.Origin of being treated fairly as a key thing held valuable.
And most of all, we learned that we had to have some measure of control over what was happening to us to get all the other things that we want.Control over future as overarching thing held valuable.
When people make a political decision, what they do is they sit down and they look at the things they might do, and they weigh them against the things that are deeply important: Is doing this going to make me safe or unsafe?Weighing trade-offs (deliberation) as core to collective democratic life.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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