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.

Building a New Life on the Ashes of Collapse: 2,500 Daily Letters

Some of my friends know that some years ago, in a deep spiritual crisis and in anguish, I began trying a new practice. I wanted to be serious about my inner spiritual life, to see if it would help me. I am not religious, but felt called to do this.

Now, each morning, I do the same thing I began back then. I rise, I sit on my sofa, I subvocalize a set prayer, I read a few pieces of spiritual literature, and I write a brief letter to God.

Since early January 2015, I have done this every morning, without fail. After a couple of years, I started posting each letter, mostly in order to have a record but also just in case anyone might find them helpful.

This morning I wrote Letter #2,500.

Letter 2,500

Doing something daily for so long may seem daunting but in reality it is simple. I set the bar for myself very low: the letter simply has to exist. It can be as short as necessary. The letter is just a mechanism to make sure I am really doing my practice, there is no magic about writing it down, nor its form. It could just as easily be an “X” marked on a calendar.

Doing this on a daily basis, without fail, has changed my life. I am convinced that any consistent spiritual practice can yield similar benefits for anyone. It does not have to be “religious” and does not have to be literally daily nor persisted in for years and years. The benefits come very quickly (for me things began to shift within a few weeks).

If you are searching for a regular spiritual practice, you might try picking something easy that you can do daily, and seeing what happens when you try it for a week or two. That is how I started.

If you are curious, or have your own practice to share, or just want to chat, please feel free to drop me a line.

(At the site you can sign up for the daily email for free. I would love it if you sign up, just because it provides a nice sense of community.)

The President and the Poet

Today, Joseph R. Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America, in a ceremony remarkable for both its singularity and for its normalcy.

There were no crowds, and the people were distanced, wearing masks. Onlookers told to stay home. There was a tension in the air, barricades on the streets, for just a few weeks ago rioters had stormed the Capitol. Yet after four years of unusually combative politics, where the very rules of engagement and facts on the ground were contested and fought bitterly, the ceremony unfolded as many had before it.

President Biden spoke of unity, and promised to govern for all, continuing a tradition of distinguishing governance from campaigning.

A very young poet, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, recited her work “The HIll We Climb,” continuing the tradition begun by Robert Frost of delivering an inaugural poem.

The two had different things to say about democracy. “Democracy is fragile,” said the President. “Democracy . . . can never be permanently defeated,” said the poet.

Who is right? Must we choose?

The President is correct, that democracy as a mechanism of governance is remarkably fragile and, indeed, rare. The United States represents the longest-running continuing effort at self-rule and there is nothing that dictates our system of government will always survive.

The poet, too, is correct. If democracy is understood to be the urge toward self-determination, the human impulse to collectively decide our own fate — then indeed it can never be permanently defeated. It is an impulse as old as humanity, long predating the very concept of formal government. Even under brutal conditions, I have known friends to grow and tend their own local democratic communities.

We must continue to pursue a more perfect Union, and we must guard against the loss of our remarkable governmental structures which have proven to be so inspiring.

Perhaps a way forward to strengthen this precarious moment is known by the young poet, who says today “there is always light, . . . if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

A Productive Year: New Materials for Deliberative Conversation

2020 has been a challenging year, on so many fronts. It is gratifying to be able to report that the group I work with at the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute has been able to rise to the challenge. We worked as never before, and the team were able to produce needed materials that respond to the moment, all throughout the year.

Here is what we published this year, in reverse chronological order.

Youth and Opportunity: What Should We Do for Future Generations to Thrive?
(December 2020)

What should we do to address unprecedented challenges that may hinder future generations from leading successful and economically secure lives?

This guide raises crucial questions for which there are no easy answers.

  • Will the next generation, like those before it, be able to build an economically secure future, or will it face too many unprecedented challenges that undercut its prospects?
  • Should present-day priorities be more important than our obligations to future generations?
  • Is the next generation receiving the education and support it needs to succeed?
  • Are there disparities that we should be addressing today to enable future generations to prosper tomorrow?

Each issue guide comes with an introductory video that lays out the topic and introduces the options for deliberation. I am especially proud of the video work this team was able to do this year, under COVID-19 restrictions and with great care. This one, the most recent, is particularly good:


Continue reading A Productive Year: New Materials for Deliberative Conversation

Conditions vs Topics vs Issues in Deliberative Politics

Politics runs on issues, which are questions about what should be done. Deliberative politics runs on issues that are widely seen as shared and critical. Yet, in public discourse, conditions, topics, and issues are often conflated.

    • Conditions are societal: norms or pathologies in how individuals or groups behave. Example: a state of division, or divisiveness, is a condition in society or a community.
    • Topics are conceptual descriptors: collections of issues which serve to separate one general field from another. Example: education is a topic area.
    • Issues are the specific domain of politics: shared problems on which collective action is possible and about which a decision must be made. Example: Addressing opioid addiction is an issue.

In preparing materials to prompt public deliberation, it can be a challenge to distinguish between these things. But there is no decision to be made, nor collective action to be taken, on conditions or topics. We cannot deliberate over “education.” What aspect of education? Disparities in achievement? Shortfalls across the board? The subject matters to be taught?

Finding Issues

Over time, in our work at the Kettering Foundation we developed heuristics that have proven helpful in distinguishing such issues.

    • Is there broad agreement that a decision must be made?
    • Is there disagreement over the cause of the issue?
    • Will any solution require a range of actors, including citizens working together?
    • Do potential solutions threaten the things people hold dear?
    • Are there institutions and other organizations that could be a part of that acting, but which do not have sole responsibility?

These are not the only such questions, nor are they definitional.  But they help point the way towards materials that can be helpful.

Often, concern over a condition or a topic prompts us to explore whether there is an issue that might productively be deliberated over. Two recent examples:

In 2018, Kettering began to research “divisiveness.” We began to wonder whether this was a problem of democracy — that divisiveness was getting in the way of our democratic functioning. However, divisiveness itself cannot be deliberated over nor politically acted on: it is a societal condition. There is no democratic policy that could be made “against” division. Research suggested, though, that there is a question for communities to deliberate over: Given the divisiveness we face, in which people increasingly behave in uncompromising ways, what should we do in order to have a functioning political system? This resulted in the issue guide, A House Divided: What Would We Have to Give Up to Have the Political System We Want? (2019).

In 2015, the “economy” was prominent in public discourse and was a consistent worry in communities. But this is a topic area, there is no question to be answered. Public research led us to see that at issue was the increasing difficulty in getting by coupled with the growing disparities between those who are thriving and those who are not. What should we do to make sure all Americans can achieve economic security? This resulted in the issue guide, Making Ends Meet: How Should We Spread Prosperity and Improve Opportunity? (2016).

Note in each case, the title of the issue guide is in the form of a question at issue.

2,000 Daily Letters

Some of my friends know that some years ago I began writing a daily “Letter to God” every morning, without fail, as a part of my morning spiritual practice. I share them freely with anyone who wants to see them here: https://letters-to-god.com/. (At the site you can sign up for the daily email for free.)

This morning I wrote Letter #2,000.

Letter #1 (left), Letter #2,000 (right)

While it may seem remarkable to do something daily for so long, in reality it is simple. I set the bar for myself very low: the letter simply has to exist. It can be as short as necessary.

If you are searching for a regular spiritual practice, you might try picking something easy that you can do daily, and seeing what happens when you try it for a week or two. That is how I started, back in January 2015.

If you are curious, or have your own practice to share, please feel free to drop me a line.