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Imagine a New Kind of Movement: Toward a Truly Mature Democracy

November 15, 2010
Andrea Grazzini Walstrom, founder and co-leader of Nonpartisan Productive Dialogue
As seen on the MinnPost

The universal sense of cross-partisan anxiety lingering after the recent midterm elections seems ironic. Voting served as much a referendum on the increasingly evident dialectic between voter apathy and political reactivity as anything else.

A good example is Minnesota’s gubernatorial election results, which remain in flux for the foreseeable future. State GOP leaders are calling for recount lawsuits on behalf of Tom Emmer. DFL leaders are scrambling to defend Mark Dayton’s near 9,000-vote lead — and salving the sting of statewide losses of incumbent seats.

All this public perseverating heightens citizens’ perception that both their public and personal values are being violated by big-time power games that determine their fate, but in which they can’t possibly compete.

Two construction workers surveying a road in Burnsville gave voice to the sense of futility. One resides in a rural area, the other in a suburb. Neither mentioned which candidate they preferred. Both qualify as so-called populists yet lack trust in either party. Neither identified with citizen movements.

They noted today’s populist movements seem co-opted by often hidden heavy hitters. Or, conversely, are undermined by widespread fears people of marginalization, if not more serious consequences of guilt-by-association. Pondering solutions to their and others’ civic inertia, the men considered the possibilities of a very different kind of social movement.

Commitment to a cooperative government
This movement would not demand members identify with a specific political perspective. Its only demand would be a common sense of commitment to a cooperative, cross-partisan, co-productive government. Implied would be the demand that politicians themselves, not their PR handlers or party proxies, clearly demonstrate their democratic leadership abilities.

This would call for a “show, not tell” attitude that audaciously contrasts the creative iterations recent campaigns used in winning with rage-rhetoric or losing with touchy-feely talk strategies. And would require, instead, measurable evidence of leaders’ very specific and sustained involvement in and impacts on expedient and respectful solutions.

The carrot — or more aptly stick, incentive behind the movement’s message would be: “If you can’t play nice politics, don’t plan on surviving the next election.” Which, as evidence and history suggests, would otherwise likely engage partisan passions just enough to swing the populist pendulum back to reset again. This and other troubling evidence increasingly shows that short-term change is unlikely at best.

Get in the game — and support all citizens
The underlying point for liberals is if you don’t get into the game, you’ll be out. For conservatives, if you don’t support all citizens, get ready for an uprising.

Both parties need to remember relevancy requires relationships that embrace what Jonathan Sacks calls “the dignity of difference.” And “The People” are not only organized institutions and polarizing populist groups. The People, whether politicians like it or not, translates as “You and your political foe, too.”

This Team of Rivals strategy, embodied by Abraham Lincoln, remains the only viable solution to political paralysis. This is not to say leaders, civic or citizen groups must “feel the love.” Only that they must have authentic “let’s get real” talks that lead to “let’s get ‘er done together” work.

Were the United States a fledgling democracy such as Pakistan or Indonesia, one could expect a big political learning curve. But one of the few things bipartisan Americans want to believe is that we are the leaders of the free world — the early adapters of what by now we’d like to brag of as a mature democracy.

In truth, though, what few Americans argue is that our bipartisan behaviors call our developmental abilities into quite serious question.

If the measure of a mature democracy is founded, as ours was, on the ideal that “We the People,” are responsible for the posterity of our country, all citizens should be called to see and engage their personal power. All politicians should be called to engage their humility and service to act as co-leaders of mature and co-mutual progress. They should not act as caricatures displaying regressive dramas.

‘Art of the possible’
In the words of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey, this attitude would embody a very American-style “art of the possible.”

The good news is, despite so many citizens’ current sense of impotence, the undercurrents of our collective potential for equity and common cause have not been fully scrubbed from our society.

Each day real citizens overcome deep differences in critically important ways in support of each other and shared communities. It can seem impossible to conceive such cooperation in a cacophonous culture that so insidiously steals our attention away from each other, and, indeed, threatens our values and potential to do good.

And yet, it happens every day. But they won’t and can’t be publicized by media or political campaigns until we as citizens see it, name it and loudly tell it.

We can witness our abilities in action in the seemingly innocuous acts of cooperation we engage in conjunction people whose ideologies might differ from ours, but whose deeper intents are not. When we see the dignity of our own and others’ differences, and engage them in co-productive solutions in our communities, we are achieving civic progress.

This is not to say that when and if we do, we should self-righteously brag of better abilities than politicians.

A needed transition
It is to say that we, as real people — whether we are road surveyors or elected officials — can help lead our country in critical ways, by clearly and persistently proving through our cooperative actions the larger point of our country. To do so, we need to do as the two road surveyors did recently. Our conversations, as theirs, must transition from obsessions about our problems to a clear and shared focus on our potentials.

Though it might seem counterintuitive to both common knowledge and campaign strategies, imagine the possibilities: An authentically all-American spontaneous social movement that demands sustained, measurable evidence of politicians’ abilities to act up to their human potential to be real and act in ways that best represent a mature democracy.

It will only be realized, however, when we transcend our apathy — and when, in no uncertain terms, we compel our leaders to prove how they play nice, for posterity’s sake.

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