David Mathews and William V. Muse, Opinion contributors
Published 6: 00 a.m. ET Dec. 18, 2019 | Updated 11: 43 a.m. ET Dec. 18, 2019
National Security: Across the country, people with
different beliefs are coming together to search for opportunities to take action even on the most contentious topics.
Political differences have become such a part of daily life that some fear that people can’t talk to each other anymore.
That’s troubling, but fortunately, it’s not the whole story. Across the country, people with different beliefs are coming together to search for common ground and opportunities to take action even on the most contentious topics. Consider:
In Jacksonville, Fla., residents came together several times last year to deliberate on what to do about several prominent Confederate monuments around the city. In these deliberations, held with little rancor and no protests, residents avoided the “either-or” debate and instead concluded they needed more civic attention on the often-overlooked role of African Americans in the city’s history.
At the Houston, Texas campus of Lone Star Community College, about 200 people gathered at tables of eight to 10 to talk about the then-newly enacted “concealed carry” state law that allows people to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. People with a wide variety of opinions attended, including members of groups for and against gun control. The deliberations were spirited, but constructive.
Across West Virginia, people gathered in a statewide initiative called, “What’s Next West Virginia?” They met in small towns and large to decide what should be done to attract new jobs and improve local economies for all West Virginians.
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The lack of rancor wasn’t miraculous but rather the result of the structure of these forums. These initiatives were local efforts, but all of them were structured around briefing books from the non-profit, non-partisan National Issues Forums Institute. For more than 30 years, NIF issue guides have framed divisive issues by providing information, possible actions, and the potential downsides of any actions. The intent is to help people move from first impressions and hasty reactions to more shared and reflective judgment.
The guides’ format presents three options, not just two, thus avoiding the either-or partisan loggerhead that so frequently paralyzes our national discourse. In this, they reflect an often-forgotten truth: Thoughtful work on public problems is rarely simple; it requires grappling with choices and trade-offs.
The exchanges in these settings differ from partisan debate because they foster deliberation.
National Security: Deliberation helps reduce division
Deliberation is as natural as talking to a neighbor over a backyard fence or around a kitchen table about tough decisions neighbors have to make. Deliberation emphasizes trying to understand another’s viewpoint and facing up to trade-offs. Rather than trying to win an argument, it is about making choices together by carefully weighing the downsides of any decision against the things each of us values deeply. That, in turn, helps reduce the division of Americans into warring political camps. And because deliberation tries to acknowledge the most basic things people prize that undergird many public issues — freedom, safety, economic security — the topics often expose what is important to each person, and what we hold in common as human beings.
So, in an era when listening to one another is considered a vestige of the past, people participating in National Issues Forums are charting an alternate future by gathering together across the country to work through contentious topics. Participants talk about not only what the government, or an institution, should do but also what role the citizenry might play by working together.
And that very deliberation creates the foundation for what often goes missing in public life. The process itself builds trust and, even deeper, an agreement to try and understand one another. It also produces a recognition that we need each other, and that recognition generates the civility many worry we have lost.
This does not mean the deliberations that take place are tension-free, nor should they be. People don’t shy away from expressing strong opinions. But as participants hear stories from people with whom they disagree, they often discover empathy or at least a better understanding of why others feel as they do.
National Security: People still believe in government
These deliberations demonstrate that people still believe in government, not just the “of, by, and for the people” in Abraham Lincoln’s ringing phrase; they believe in government “with” the people — something we don’t hear enough about. People want more than a voice; they want a hand in shaping the future, and they recognize that making progress requires working alongside those with whom they disagree.
NIF deliberations are an exercise in the basics of democracy; they foster public judgment, which should inform our voting. Americans want, and perhaps even need, to deliberate on issues with their fellow citizens and to engage in what Alexis de Tocqueville called “sincere sacrifices for the key common good.” It’s part of who we are as a nation, and thankfully, it is still alive.
David Mathews is president of the Kettering Foundation and chairman of the National Issues Forums Institute. He served as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Ford administration and was president of the University of Alabama from 1969 to 1980. William V. Muse is president of the National Issues Forums Institute. Over a 40-year career in higher education, he served for 20 years as president or chancellor of three large public universities.
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