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Improving the Democratic Process Begins at the Local Level

by Jane Susskind, published

As in any diverse democracy, we are constantly confronted with disagreement and tough decisions on every level of governance. Anticipating the diversity of opinions, our Founding Fathers set in place the tools necessary to resolve conflict, aiming to give all members of society a voice in the political process.

The increasingly polarized nature of politics, however, is making it virtually impossible for our democratic process to function. Conflict resolution is no longer about solving problems, and has transformed into a game of winners and losers, pitting lawmakers against each other, not next to each other.

"We've created a political system where it makes no sense to talk to people across multiple perspectives," argues Martin Carcasson, director of the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University in a recent San Diego seminar on What Kind of Talk Does Democracy Need. 

So, what's the solution? It starts with democratic communication.

The Conversation We Should Be Having

While some issues are easily resolved, others involve competing underlying values, tradeoffs, and paradoxes that cannot be solved in full by science. These problems require judgement on core values - values like freedom, equality, justice, and security.

In order to solve for these problems, however, the conversation must transcend the basic judgement of whether these values are good or bad, and instead needs to analyze the tensions inherent in balancing these values in the decision-making process.

The ongoing conversation on the National Security Agency's surveillance practices, for example, is often oversimplified in the national dialogue. If you're for national security, you must be against freedom, right? 

Framing those who support surveillance in the name of national security as intrinsically against freedom ignores the complexities involved in balancing national security with our value of freedom.

The conversation we should be having is about the tensions involved in policy making and how best to accommodate for the diversity of thought.

The conversation we should be having is devoid partisan rhetoric and party labels and includes opinions from multiple perspectives.

The conversation we should be having focuses on policy, not the partisan politics that has bred a system where anything good for one-side is automatically bad for the other side.

What Kind of Talk Does Democracy Need?

Martin Carcasson continues to argue that the only way to have these types of conversations is through deliberative democracy.

Deliberative democracy, he explains, is "an approach to politics in which citizens, not just experts or politicians, are deeply involved in public decision making and problem-solving."

It originates on the local level, at town hall meetings, public forums, classrooms, and community meetings. It involves cooperation, collaborative processes, relevant data provided by experts, nonpartisan perspectives, and civic participation.

If embraced by local communities, he argues, it has the power to transform politics in Washington and the democratic process.

What Kind of Media Does Democracy Need? 

Deliberative thought should not be practiced solely by those making the decisions; rather it extends to those entrusted with reporting on the deliberative processes and articulating the results to the public - the media.

In its traditional role, the media acts as a watchdog of those in power, relaying information and reporting on community based solutions. In its deteriorating form, however, the media mirrors the dialogue of our elected officials in Washington, narrowly depicting issues as two-sided.

The same set of issues arise in the media all across the country, whether it's on TV, in newspapers, or shared digitally. Headlines are edited to sell a story, debates are condensed to 140 characters, and the issues discussed in the media are predetermined by politicians who want to stay in power.

"A deliberative media would focus more on engaging broad audiences, uncovering the underlying value dilemmas and tough choices inherent to public issues, and providing the public with a clearer understanding of both the relevant facts and the relevant tradeoffs tied to key issues. Such a media would shift away from a focus on conflict and politics as a spectacle and take more responsibility for improving the quality of public discussion," argues Carcasson. 

In order to foster a democratic society in which citizens can learn from opposing opinions and embrace alternative solutions, the dialogue should move away from politics, and focus on the deliberative processes involved in policymaking. It's up to the media to follow.

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