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.

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.

Getting Past Polarities: “How Should We Reopen?”

This recent Thomas Edsall piece got me thinking, and reflecting on what we have seen emerging over the question that might roughly be phrased as: How should we reopen society?

This is a question that turns on things that are held deeply valuable. It is not suited to a binary approach. Most news articles do portray it as binary, but they use differing poles. Edsall’s examination suggests one polarity (“safetyism” (addressed below) vs. economic security). And a recent New York Times editorial suggests another polarity (economic security vs. civil liberties).

By looking carefully at the various lines of thinking expressed in these binaries, I think we can see three emerging emphases. I know others may have other ways of laying things out, but this is what I am seeing.

    • We should do everything we can to protect vulnerable people and therefore stay home and confined until we know that everyone can be safe. (The thing held most deeply valuable here is care for others and that people be treated fairly: it is not fair that the vulnerable are at such risk) (Note that this is a way of describing the “safetyism” Edsall refers to in terms of things held valuable.)
    • We should move as rapidly as possible to rebuild the economy. (Here, what is held most deeply valuable is collective security: the economic pain is spreading too broadly and our society is at risk)
    • We should allow people to make their own decisions. (Held valuable: ability to chart my own course.)

Each of the above are in direct tension with the other two and also has a strong set of downsides. Think of a triangle with equally divergent corners, rather than a spectrum with a middle to be found.

The question How should we reopen society? will evolve into a different questions as the reopening progresses. And on a particular community level it may have more resonance: How should we reopen our congregation? is compatible with the same set of options, but may be easier to talk about since it is immediate and concrete.

(It is also possible to look at a more expressly economic name for the problem, as safety worries recede: How should we rebuild the economy?)

Covid-19: More Than Two Sides to the Reopening Question

On the really thorny questions that we face in public life, there are usually more than just two sides, yet the way we talk about them assumes an us-vs-them division that gets in the way of clear talk.

Writing in late April, 2020, the question for many states and cities is: How should we reopen, under what conditions, and when?

Like most of the really difficult public problems, there is not a definitive right answer to this question. There is not a department of government that can make the final and objectively correct determination. It is a political and moral question that calls us to set priorities.

Much of the commentary on this question sees two camps, whom some might call the Closers and the Openers. This article (albeit written from a Libertarian perspective) does a good job of portraying the best-foot-forward argument that each would mount:

Americans are divided about the best way to proceed from here, three months since the first case was diagnosed in the U.S. The division is more vivid and harsh on social networks than in the polls, where a vast majority of Americans still think strong lockdowns are the best idea moving forward. Such Americans think the economy needs to stay shut down by law until a vaccine or some effective treatment is developed that ensures no more, or a very tiny number of, people will be seriously harmed or killed by COVID-19.

On the other hand, some Americans think, on balance, the country’s overall quality of life demands we start letting people and businesses make their own decisions about whether it is safe to go out in public or conduct business openly, especially given access to simple prophylactic measures such as gloves and masks.

To the above perspectives I would add one that prioritizes fairness toward vulnerable and marginalized people. Maybe call this perspective the “Equalizers.” This view holds that the pandemic has intolerably intensified already existing inequities, and that mitigation must focus there first.

By acknowledging this third perspective, the conversation becomes more nuanced. The question is not a binary Open vs. Close one. Each perspective is in tension with two others. For instance, if we stay Closed, we not only must address the argument that a ruined economy may do more harm than the pandemic, but also the argument that Closure is harder on people who are already severely oppressed. Similarly, if we Open, we must ask how rushing back to work affects the vulnerable, low income who may well be on the front lines first, as well as what the broader effects of contagion could be.

A Personal Mission of Agency

Each year-end I look back and reflect. I look at all areas of my life: family, professional, personal, spiritual, physical, financial.

Across all of the major areas of my life, this has been a pivotal year of conceptual progress for me. I developed great clarity on my personal mission. And three ideas that began to gel for me in 2017 continued to gather strength.

Thinking about 2018, it is fair to say that this mission and corresponding three ideas have revolutionized how I approach almost all of my interactions.

My mission: To spread personal and collective agency. This is true in my professional life (where I explore ways that people can develop their own sense of democratic power) but also across my personal life — where I see my role as creating the conditions in which others can see the power and ability they already have.

Three principles have increasingly governed how I think about this mission:

1. I increasingly see propagation as the key means by which personal agency spreads. This recognition must be passed on from person to person to person. Through direct contact. I am convinced that as an individual my highest and best use is in fostering this spread. More and more, I am trying to organize all of my work with attention to how it might later propagate – not just from me to someone else, but from them to yet another. This is a kind of intentional “viral” strategy.

2. I have come increasingly to place learning at the center of all of my interactions. This is the central consequence of the above point. All progress, whether personal or collective, starts with a mindset change. That means that my task is not just to convey “knowledge” but a way of thinking. Agency must be learned, it cannot be taught. I try to interact in ways that encourages others to discover for themselves.

3. More and more I try to act through attraction. If propagation is the means by which personal agency spreads, and if learning is fundamental to that, then the nature of my interactions changes. When interacting with people, my task is to invite and interest them.

The future may always bring more change and upheaval, for me and for others, so I hesitate to say this is all set in stone. But looking back it is remarkable to me how powerful these ideas have been in my inner life over the past twelve months. I am looking forward to seeing how they further take root in 2019.