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: (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.

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.

Covid-19: Dealing with Moral Dilemmas in Everyday Life

Many of us are more secluded than usual right now. Some are living more closely with family members. Some are facing great difficulty in some personal or professional realm. For some, essential workers, care-givers, and others, life has sped up. We all, though, must look at ourselves clearly when we retire at night, able to answer the question: Have I acted rightly?

For some, it feels ever more difficult to answer this question right now.

Rushworth M. Kidder

A mentor early in my career, Rushworth M. Kidder (whose passage I still mourn), was a renowned expert on practical ethical decision making. In his book, How Good People Make Tough Choices, Rush developed a framework for thinking about moral dilemmas: difficult questions that pit one right action against another.

It seems that all we need now to do is simple: follow the advice of the experts who know. We must isolate, practice contagion hygiene, and distance ourselves.  But even within the bounds of these current restrictions, we face questions about what we as individuals — and groups — should do.

We are all facing such dilemmas in more and more intense ways:

    • I need food: Do I shop? When? Where?
    • An encampment of homeless need supplies: Do we go to them? How?
    • A vulnerable person needs shelter: Do I take them in? Under what conditions?
    • My aging family member visits unannounced: Do I allow them in?
    • A person owes taxes to the government: Should they receive a stimulus payment?

Moral dilemmas like these are different than temptations, which is what many people commonly mean when they refer to a “dilemma.” A temptation has a clear right action on one side, and an attractive yet wrong action on the other. For instance, under current isolation conditions, in my area it would be wrong of me to hold a dinner party, much as I might like to.

But dilemmas are different: Two right actions, and I can’t do both. It might seem like there would be infinite kinds of dilemmas, but Rush noted that there are just four:

    • Truth vs. Loyalty: Do I tell the truth, or do I remain loyal?
    • Justice vs. Mercy: Do I punish, or am I merciful?
    • Individual vs. Community: Should I act for myself or family, or for the larger community?
    • Short term vs. Long term: Should I act for the immediate good, or focus on the long term?

Under our current conditions, all of these dilemmas are front-and-center. Every move I make calls for me to consider the boundaries between my own well-being and that of the broader community. As we consider what to do in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, we face stark short-term vs. long-term questions. And as time goes on, we will need to begin to make decisions about punishment, and about truth telling.

Just knowing that there are different kinds of dilemmas is not enough, as Rush knew. He notes that there are three ways of thinking about how to answer such dilemmas. Each has a long philosophical tradition(*) and has advantages as well as drawbacks:

    • Outcome-based: Do what is the best for the greatest number. Also known as “utilitarian.” Drawbacks of this approach: Can be cruel to the minority; assumes you can know all the outcomes of your actions.
    • Rule-based: Determine the proper rule, and act as if you are setting a precedent for all who might face an identical problem in future. Also known as the “categorical imperative.” Drawbacks: Can be overly rigid; under some circumstances can result in ridiculous outcomes (eg answering truthfully when a murderer rings your bell and asks if your family is home)
    • Care-based: Do what you would want done if the situation were reversed. Also known as the “golden rule.” Drawbacks: Cannot always know who the “other” would be; may be overly biased towards leniency

These decision-making principles are not like a computer, where you enter the question and they give an answer. Sometimes different principles will suggest different courses of action. What they do is give me a lens through which to look at my dilemma, and develop a response with which I might be morally comfortable.


* (I am simplifying the philosophy somewhat in the above, so for my theorist friends please be lenient.)

Health Care: How Can We Bring Costs Down While Getting the Care We Need? — New Conversation Materials Released

I am pleased to announce publication today of the most recent National Issues Forums issue guide, Health Care: How Can We Bring Costs Down While Getting the Care We Need?

From the guide:

Americans, individually and as a nation, are worried about high health-care costs. Many of us fear that skyrocketing drug prices and surprise medical bills could keep us from getting the care we need or ruin us financially whether we have insurance or not. Businesses and governments also face increasing costs. Health-care costs continue to grow faster than inflation.

How can we bring costs down while getting the care we need? This issue advisory looks at three ways of making our health-care system sustainable and fair. Each option offers advantages as well as downsides.

    • If we create a single government program to pay for everyone’s health care, would taxes rise and quality suffer?
    • Can gradual reforms hold costs down and still get everybody covered?
    • Should we take responsibility for our own choices in a more transparent and competitive marketplace even if that means those who make poor decisions will suffer the consequences?

NIFI is offering a full set of materials on this issue:

    • The issue guide in a printed, 28-page format and as a downloadable PDF
    • A briefer 6-page issue advisory that presents the same three options for deliberation (printed and PDF)
    • A 4-minute overview video
    • Post-forum questionnaire
    • Spanish versions of the issue advisory and questionnaire as downloadable PDF, and a subtitled overview video
This issue is part of the Hidden Common Ground initiative, a joint project that brings together nationwide survey research by Public Agenda, reporting and editorial coverage from USA TODAY, issue guides developed by the Kettering Foundation, and the network of National Issues Forums. The forums are meant to foster deliberation where people make decisions together on what actions we should take on pressing issues, and where we are divided and still have work to do.