A House Divided: Announcing New Conversation Materials on Political Division

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend is a time that many devote to public acts — serving their broader community, raising their voice about issues, talking together about current events, and more. This year features a shut-down government, a rancorous stalemate in Congress over myriad issues, and uncertainty over the future.

All this at a time when American public life is highly divided and people find it more and more difficult to talk to one another. Not only are there deep disagreements over specific issues, but people increasingly lament division per se. They are concerned about how we as a nation can self-govern.

I am pleased to announce publication today of the most recent National Issues Forums issue guide, A House Divided: What Would We Have to Give Up to Get the Political System We Want?

From our announcement:

New Issue Guide Released: A House Divided: What Would We Have to Give Up to Get the Political System We Want?

Many people are deeply disturbed by the state of American politics today. Trust in our national institutions and in the media has plummeted. Fewer bother to vote or participate in public life. Action on pressing issues is repeatedly kicked down the road. Perhaps most disturbing is that we find it harder and harder to even talk to each other. We often seem instead to shout at one another. There have even been recent acts of political violence. What should we do to get the political system that we want? How should we begin to work together to solve our most urgent problems?

This issue guide presents three options for deliberation, along with their drawbacks. Each option offers advantages as well as risks. If we regulate what people can say online, will we end up silencing voices we need to hear? Should we push politicians to compromise more often even if it means they must bend on their principles? Should we focus more power locally, or would that result in an unmanageable patchwork of conflicting rules governing many important areas of our lives?

Option One: Reduce dangerous, toxic talk.
Option Two: Make fairer rules for politics and follow them.
Option Three: Take control and make decisions closer to home.

Both an issue guide and a shorter issue advisory are available, as well as a video introduction. The advisory is also available in Spanish.

The issue guide is available here at NIF (free download). There is also a video companion to the guide. See the trailer here.

Please let me know if you use these materials and, if you do, what happens.

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I serve as executive editor of issue guides at the Kettering Foundation. We develop these nonpartisan materials to support deliberation on difficult public issues, and make them available for publication by the National Issues Forums Institute. The NIF network is comprised of all sorts of organizations who use the guides in their own ways, holding conversations in which people deliberate together about what we ought to do.

Coming to America: Who Should We Welcome, What Should We Do? — New Issue Guide Released by National Issues Forums Institute

I am pleased to announce that the latest NIF issue guide, Coming to America: Who Should We Welcome, What Should We Do?, is released today.

At the NIFI link, there is also available an “issue advisory” for free download – such advisories are the core “name” and “frame” of the issue in an easy to use format, and are suitable to use in a deliberative forum setting on their own.

The immigration issue affects virtually every American, directly or indirectly, often in deeply personal ways. The issue guide is designed for people to use to deliberate together about how we should approach the issue as a society. It presents three options that reflect different ways of understanding what is at stake and that force us to think about what matters most when we face difficult problems that involve all of us — and that do not have perfect solutions.

The concerns that underlie this issue are not confined to party affiliation, nor are they captured by labels like “conservative” or “liberal.”

Coming to America: Who Should We Welcome, What Should We Do?

Option 1: Welcome Immigrants, Be a Beacon of Freedom
This option says that immigration has helped make America what it is today — a dynamic and diverse culture, an engine of the global economy, and a beacon of freedom around the world.

Option 2: Enforce the Law, Be Fair to Those Who Follow the Rules
This option says we need a fair system, where the rules are clear and, above all, enforced. With an estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally, our current system is unjust and uncontrolled.

Option 3: Slow Down and Rebuild Our Common Bonds
This option recognizes that newcomers have strengthened American culture in the past. But the current levels of immigration are so high, and the country is now so diverse, that we must regain our sense of national purpose and identity.

The Kettering Foundation researches and develops issue guides like this one and makes them available to NIFI to publish.

Follow the link for more information and to order or download your own.

What Should We Do About the Opioid Epidemic? — New Issue Advisory from the National Issues Forums Institute

I am pleased to announce a new “issue advisory” that is available as a free download (or fold-out hard copy) from the National Issues Forums Institute titled What Should We Do About the Opioid Epidemic? I am proud of my role in helping develop this resource. The Kettering Foundation researches and develops issue frameworks like this one and makes them available to NIFI to publish.

My friend and longtime colleague Tony Wharton wrote the text. Drafts of this advisory have been tested all throughout the U.S. and it has proven to spark a useful conversation.

The issue advisory is meant to support broad-based community conversation about what we, in our communities, should do in response to the drastically rising epidemic of opioid use, abuse, and deaths.

This difficult conversation involves tensions between compassion, personal responsibility, and freedom of choice. The advisory presents three options for people to talk about together:

  1. We should extend and provide treatment for all, get people the medical help they need
  2. We should crack down, people should take responsibility for their choices and actions
  3. We should allow people freedom to do as they want, if they are not hurting anyone it is their business

Follow the link to order or download your own.

Robert J. Kingston, RIP

RIP Bob Kingston, 1929-2016.

Bob KingstonA longtime colleague — one of my teachers in the craft and science of framing public issues — has passed over the weekend.

He was a giant in the world in which I work. I treasure the many projects we worked on together — him gently yet forcefully guiding a young man into understanding what “issue framing” is and might be. He reviewed almost all of my early work with the Kettering Foundation. He was a formative influence in my understanding of how democracy can best work as it should.

Exacting yet gracious and cordial, receiving a memo from Bob always necessitated deep thought, in trying to implement the excellent corrections they invariably conveyed. But it was when I could convince him to get out his colored pen and actually edit my text when I was the most grateful. His brilliance in turning tepid concepts into razors of insight was profound. His marks seemed to magically make my prose, and therefore my thinking, better.

A fuller memorial is posted at the Kettering Foundation’s page. In it, Kettering’s president, David Mathews, says, “Bob Kingston was one of the primary architects of the modern Kettering Foundation. He is renowned for his role as editor of the Kettering Review. To say that he is irreplaceable is an understatement. All of his colleagues and associates at the foundation will sorely miss him.”

I among them.

What Do I Do?

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am a program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

Even though it has “foundation” in its name, Kettering is best described as a “research institute.” (We aren’t a grant maker.) As a program officer, I am responsible for one or more portfolios of research. This begs the question: What does Kettering research?

We study how democracy can best work as it should.

By “democracy,” we do not mean a particular mechanism for choosing leaders (contested elections), nor popular representation necessarily. These are things that may be in place in a democracy, but they do not themselves equal democracy. Our definition is simple:

Democracy is a system of governance in which power comes from citizens who generate their power by working together to combat common problems—beginning in their communities—and by working to shape their common future, both through what they do with other citizens and through their institutions.

A shorthand for this that I use is “citizens working collectively to shape their future.” Note that this definition implies that the democracy we study can in fact take place in all manner of government regimes. It is human-scaled, expressed in communities, and fundamentally implicates people acting together in such a way that they recognize the power they have to address shared problems.

So that is the principle we are operating from. Here is how we describe the actual research:

Kettering’s research is intentionally citizen-focused. We do research on: how people become engaged as citizens and make sound decisions; how they can work together to solve problems and educate their children, beginning in their communities; and how a productive citizenry can engage governmental and civic institutions as those institutions attempt to engage them.

So we have three main areas that we are exploring: How citizens make decisions together; how people in communities work together; and how citizens and institutions engage with one another.

We never do our research on citizens, communities, or institutions — always with someone. Some group or coalition is experimenting with changing how they work so as to increase the control citizens might have over their future. They share with us what they are learning, and we share with them what we have learned over the years of exploring these questions with a wide variety of others. So our work takes place in a learning exchange.