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.

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.