Michael A. Rebell, Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation

This is a very important new book: Michael A. Rebell, Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

My blurb on the back cover says, “Michael Rebell makes a powerful and original case that litigation can and should improve civic education. He skillfully assembles evidence from the existing literature to show that civic education is important for the future of our democracy and requires improvement, then further applies his deep knowledge and experience with education-reform litigation to argue persuasively that courts can and would consider lawsuits requiring states to improve their policies for civic education.”

I’d add that this is one of the best available summaries of the research on civic education. Rebell really does demonstrate that litigation is a plausible strategy for improving civics. One reason is that state constitutions often explicitly cite preparing citizens to vote and serve on juries as the main rationale for establishing a right to education. Finally, Rebell offers sophisticated solutions. In a way, the hardest question is what a state should do if a court orders it to improve its civic education. There are complex debates about the value of policies like tests and required courses, and no single policy will work in every state and for every purpose.* But Rebell explains that courts can require processes that involve deliberation about strategies, experimentation, and assessment. That means that a court wouldn’t have to order a policy but could require a flexible process and then hold the state accountable for making serious efforts.

* See my exchange with Beth Rubin about policy for civicsnew overview of civic education, and state policies for civics: it’s all about implementation.

Creating a Welcoming Environment with Conservatives

As people convene this week for the National Week of Conversation, we wanted to share this piece from NCDD member org, The Village Square – Tallahassee on how to build authentic relationships and civic events with conservatives. In order to truly engage the public, it’s vital to have an actual diverse group. Often times, particularly in the D&D field, the same “usual suspects” of left-leaning folks are gathered and Conservative-identifying are left out. The Village Square talks about the important lessons they have learned on how to create a more welcoming environment and create a space where Conservatives are more inclined to come to the table. We encourage you to read the article below and find it in full on The Village Square – Tallahassee’s site here.

Welcoming Conservatives

As a critical mass of appropriate hand wringing continues as to how to address the deep and increasingly consequential partisan divisions roiling the western world, there is a surprisingly well-developed empirically supported body of knowledge that guides solutions that seem far simpler than the enormity of the problem would suggest.

To grow empathy toward those with different worldviews, moral psychologists tell us, we need to have positive interactions with “the other” (which is referred to as “contact hypothesis”) and emphasize shared “superordinate” goals. Our decade of pushing the civility rock up this steep hill supports their science – it’s almost a secret decoder ring because it shifts entrenched negative attitudes reliably and quickly. Strangely enough, softening hatred turns out to have been the easy part of this big job. The hard part is getting people who disagree on politics to occupy the same space so that the magic can work.

For those of us inspired to the work of building bridges, this first step of getting people with diverse views in a room together has proven a frequently experienced circular challenge – we don’t like each other because we don’t spend time together and we don’t spend time together because we don’t like each other.

This challenge appears to be particularly thorny when it comes to drawing conservatives into civic engagement as it’s most typically practiced. After a decade of experience with the Village Square – an organization dedicated to creating relationships across the partisan divide – we’ve developed some thinking around both causes of the problem and solutions that work. We host about 30 events a year that depend on drawing a voluntary diverse audience – because no one has to attend our events, we’ve been forced to do both sleuthing and soul searching.

As brilliant new ideas are popping up around the country to address the challenge of poisonous tribal partisanship, we think there is significant risk that too many of these good ideas will fail to achieve their goals simply because they fail to draw conservatives into their orbit. Even brilliantly conceived and potentially highly impactful initiatives may make things arguably worse, after all if conservatives don’t show up, aren’t we accidentally cementing structural divisions by hanging even more often with fellow liberals? And might we risk driving the contempt even deeper, when liberals who show up and want to fix “the relationship” are effectively “stood up?” Note: we’re addressing our remarks to liberals struggling to draw conservatives into dialogue. Further posts will address other aspects of this challenge!

Here’s what we learned

Start with a bipartisan relationship. Whatever you’re undertaking, your team has to include a minimum of two people with an authentic ongoing relationship who disagree on politics. If your first try at this fails, try again. If you don’t have a relationship like this, build one. There is no group of politically likeminded people, no matter how well meaning, who will ultimately succeed in an endeavor lacking some honest feedback from the other side. Conservatives will probably be less intrigued by your idea (for reasons we touch on, below) so you might have to be creative in how you meet this requirement as you begin. But do meet it. You might also have to live with the idea that they’re less “in love” with your idea or project than you are at first. That’s all worth moving past because a truth-telling conservative partner will tell you important things that you will never imagine otherwise.

Build an expanding bipartisan network incrementally. Depending on the durability you’re trying to achieve or the scale of your endeavor, consider growing an intermediate-sized ideologically and demographically diverse group that essentially creates the social “glue” that will ensure you draw from different tribes when you either go big or go long with the public. For us it was a bipartisan board of about 15 (the liberal partner in the original pair identified conservative friends and vice versa), then that group expanded to 75 “founders” before we did our first press release. To the extent you can, keep tapping pre-existing friendships to form the strongest base going forward. Early on, there was much vouching we had to do for each other with potential panelists, elected officials and members of the public. They were suspicious.

Keep a conservative bench. You’re more likely to lose conservatives along the way (again, for reasons that make perfect sense and have nothing to do with their moral compass, see below). Don’t get irritated – just get replacements. Do take the time to get feedback from conservatives you’ve lost – you might even learn something! Wash, rinse, repeat. Forever.

Consider partnering with an ideologically diverse church congregation or a politically diverse group of churches. Churches are institutions that have more street cred for conservatives than the average town hall does. Additionally, church partners naturally help you speak to hearts, not heads (below).

If you’re liberal, don’t use your mother tongue. Direct appeals to “unity” can have an unintended effect in this dysfunctional highly siloed political environment – where individual words even have tremendous partisan valence. Efforts to unite across division – often led by citizens who lean liberal (for reasons that have nothing to do with the worth of conservatives) – unintentionally and understandably frame their efforts using language that draws in like-minded liberal audience. In this way their framing unintentionally conveys to conservatives that the project is a liberal one, predisposing a failure to engage conservatives adequately.

Here’s a list of some hot potato words you might want to avoid in your official communications (or at the very least balance them with some words that speak to conservatives). It isn’t that conservatives don’t care about some of these things, it’s just that in this polarized environment they’ve become toxic markers of partisanship and should be used only with caution by bridge builders who truly want to build the gosh darn bridge: sustainability, race, unity, cooperation, community, social justice, awareness, women’s health, tolerance, climate change, privilege, resources, diversity, dialogue, inclusive, identity, kindness. (We’re sorry, we know this is hard news because we’ve been there too. When our civic space is detoxified, we can use them again.) We make a practice of checking the titles of our programs with both liberal and conservative friends.

Speak to hearts, not heads. Corollary: focus on relationships, not facts. A unique quality of Western liberalism is that we perceive ourselves as operating inside a framework of rationalism where we look at the facts, weigh them and choose the course of action that is objectively supported. But if we truly value facts, we’ll realize that rationalism isn’t – well – rational. For human beings making our way through copious and ambiguous information, science tells us that our intuitions comes first, and strategic reasoning follows. We essentially – as a species – believe what we want to believe (liberals too).

Forums with a heavy focus on debate and fact checking put the cart squarely before the horse in terms of what has to happen first to create change. The primary focus on bridge building efforts has to be on creating conditions that make people from feuding tribes want to like each other. Once those positive relationships exists, we want to hear others out, which changes everything. Interestingly, many conservatives follow their intuition first as their factory default setting, so in a highly divided political world, they immediately sense your liberalism when your coordinates aim squarely and repeatedly at objective fact. We know, waiting is hard to do. But the cart will come along if you get the moving parts in the right order. (We have a priest friend who likes to challenge our audiences to list the guiding principles of their lives using only facts. Can’t do it can you? Big ideas incorporate wisdom and wisdom is different than fact.)

Understand liberal and conservative “moral channels.” Liberals and conservatives are not receiving information about our current civic crisis on the same channels and it’s a fundamentally big problem. According to Jonathan Haidt and colleagues’ body of work advanced as Moral Foundations Theory(entertaining 18 minute primer here), liberals understand moral good to be constrained primarily to whether it is caring or harmful and whether it is fair. While conservatives also believe that care and fairness are moral goods, they believe those goods must be balanced with other moral goods (loyalty, authority, liberty and sanctity – referred to as the “binding” moral foundations).

In this polarized political environment, The Village Square has considerable direct experiential evidence that anything that sounds like attention to care and fairness actually drives conservatives away, as they intuitively understand “this is not my tribe.” Making matters worse, liberals perceive that in many cases conservative moral values are, in fact, amoral, responding to this perception with even more care and fairness (the concept of “virtue signaling” is useful in understanding this tendency). This caring on steroids often has the unintentional effect of creating a backlash with conservatives rather than building the bridge liberals truly do seek. To conservatives this kind of an over focusing on “care” and “fair” feels immature (lacking in broad situational awareness and some critical qualities a healthy society must have to function, like authority) as well as too often weaponized by “social justice warriors.” The more conservatives hear “care more,” the more they actually seem to do the opposite; the “meaner” liberals think conservatives are, the stronger liberals catapult the “care” into the next round of hostilities. This is the cycle of equal and opposite reactions where the worst in our politics now resides.

Believe in your soul that without deeply engaged conservatives, your effort will lack critical insights required to solve problems – insights liberals are likely blind to (even dangers liberals may be blind to). We often encounter liberal-leaning friends and colleagues doing civic work with incredibly sincere intention, but with a little digging it’s clear that their central animating belief is that if one can create respectful conversation and do good fact checking, ultimately those intransigent conservatives will come around to a more liberal view of reality. In our era of jaw-dropping distortion of factual reality, we understand the impulse to see the problem this way (truth told, this describes many of us). But as valid as this aspect of the challenge is, you’ll have much more success if you begin with another deep truth we’ve discovered along the way: conservatives can often see dangers, risks and challenges that liberals can’t. All humans have significant blind spots in our ability to perceive reality and likeminded groups of people are even more prone to blindness (a moral tribe actually is glued together aroundthose blind spots).

We like John Stuart Mill on this: “… the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies… both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though in the wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.”

The shift in your organizing premise will come through clearly to conservatives and it will draw them to you. For more, see the concept of “morality binds and blinds” in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. (Think of this blindness as akin to the dark side of the “asteroid” in our Asteroids Club metaphor.)

Empathize with conservatives through a key insight that’s commonly absent in liberal circles. In American Grace, Harvard’s Robert Putnam broadly observes that as tectonic plates moved in society beginning in the sixties – and since – liberals have won the culture war on most all fronts. We get it, if you’re liberal we’re still not there, but if you’re 50 years old pretty much everything has changed about our social order in the length of your life. From this vantage point, even just that level of change can be thoroughly disorienting, especially if you believe in conservative principles that follow the wisdom of the ages. That means that for over a half a century, conservatives have been living in a culture that violates their most essential guiding principles about how to maintain a functional society (don’t mistake that as being just about bias against women and minorities, it’s not).

Liberals are now less than one year into a presidency that violates their deepest held core beliefs about what constitutes a strong and healthy world. The natural (and healthy) reaction for liberals is they’re now circling their wagons and gathering in common cause to push against it. And in that short time, there’s already been reporting on the rise of “fake news” on the left. Bad facts on the right are inevitable after decades of feeling outside the prevailing culture, given that human beings “reason” in order to confirm what we want to believe, not what’s objectively true. Imagine the left in 50 years of a Trump-styled illiberal democracy and you’ll have more empathy.

Take a continuous meter reading on whether the environment you’ve created welcomes conservatives. A lost liberal who stumbles into a gun show wouldn’t need to see a single firearm to know they’re not with their people. Conservatives will know too. It’s a good exercise to think of everything you do through their eyes.

Scale up using a distributed leadership “cell” model(Alternative less-advisable name: “Use the al Qaeda model”) Whether you’re going for clicks, attendance, or some other kind of scale, look to a small key group of catalysts to become separate “hubs” to build a diverse audience. The very problem we face is that ideologically diverse groupings of people aren’t naturally occurring “in the wild” so you can’t just assume diverse people will naturally show up for you because you want them to. Creating diverse groups now requires a new intentionality.

A “cell” structure has long been powerfully deployed to create worldwide terror, or if you’d prefer something morally worth emulating, cells create the close connections that form the organizing ballast of megachurches. Point is, it works. Almost all of us can find 7 people who look and think different than we do and invite them to join us to do something. We’ve used this model to draw a racially diverse audience of 500+ to actually talk about race – we only needed 20 diverse catalysts to get it done. Once the engineered diversity starts shaping attendance, its momentum makes a diverse audience now grow naturally. Voila, you’ve essentially begun formation of a new tribe.

Recognize the hazard of lopsided groups. Truth is, we’ve had plenty of politically lopsided groups, it’s even possible that all of our now hundreds of events have had lopsided attendance (our original location is in a highly liberal city). You can do everything right and it’s still likely your engagement will lean left (spending an evening immersed in dialogue across diversity can seem to conservatives like a liberal thing to do). But it is critical that you stay highly aware of the imbalance – it will affect every decision you make toward keeping conservatives comfortable and lead to increasing success attracting conservatives into your project over time.

Respect that conservatives are going to be less thrilled with your forum or initiative for reasons that are truly legitimate (and have nothing to do with being mean, overly partisan or racist). It is simply a descriptor of the essential philosophical underpinnings of conservatism that they have moreconfidence in their families and faith communities to deal with problems than government or a shared civic space. What this means is that the very nature of most civility initiatives begins with a frame that many conservatives don’t fundamentally share with their more liberal neighbors. An incredible strength of so many conservatives we know is that they’ve got their guiding principles and they’re a little too busy following them to make it to an evening forum. We’ve learned that ultimately it’s our deep embrace of what they bring that’s unique that’s made all the difference.

Challenges notwithstanding, the rewards you’ll get for your efforts to welcome conservatives are both essential to your success and will be transformational for you. They have been for us – the liberals among us will never go back to a room full of people just like us. It’s boring and lacks insights we’ve grown accustomed to hearing.

Got more ideas, models that have worked for you or do you just basically disagree with something we’re advancing here? Building bridges is a big job so we’ll need all shoulders at the wheel. Let’s keep talking.

You can find the original version of this article on The Village Square – Tallahassee’s site at https://tlh.villagesquare.us/blog/welcoming-conservatives/.

May 3-4 Conference: Creating Civic Competence: the Critical Challenges

The New Civics Early Career Scholars’ Program & The Civic and Moral Education Initiative in partnership with The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics invite you to a conference on Creating Civic Competence: the Critical Challenges. May 3-4 Larsen Hall Harvard Graduate School of Education

Preparing youth to meet growing civic challenges, worldwide, creates new questions for effective civic education. The New Civics Early Career Scholars Program, supported by the Spencer Foundation, trains doctoral students in civic education. This Conference draws on their innovative work with commentaries from distinguished senior scholars in the field.

Larsen Hall Room G08Helen Haste

“Identity, Agency and the Power of Story: Meeting the Civic Challenges?”Helen HasteVisiting Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Professor Emerita of Psychology, University of Bath


Danielle Allen

Danielle Allen
James Bryant Conant University Professor, and Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University

Howard Gardner
Howard Gardner
Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Peter Levine
Peter Levine
Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Tisch College, Tufts University
Judith Purta

Judith Torney-Purta
Professor of Human Development, University of Maryland

The Conference also features commentaries from Michelle Bellino, Sarah Dryden-Peterson and Julie Reuben.
Some questions the Conference will address:

  • How do young people become motivated and gain civic identity?
  • How does early experience develop the skills for later civic and moral responsibility?
  • How do digital media reshape civic participation?
  • How can we use art to enlarge and innovate civic education?
  • How involved should higher education be in fixing civic problems?
  • How do cultural narratives and institutional structures, in the US and internationally, frame civic identity, competence and global moral responsibility?
  • How should we sensitively define and measure civic education outcomes in different cultural and social contexts?
  • What can we learn from critical and participatory pedagogy among marginalized, dispossessed and conflict-ridden populations??

Registration:  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/conference-creating-civic-competence-the-critical-challenges-tickets-44990792672

Conference Website:

Conference Program:

NCDD Teams Up for Bridging the Divides Workshop in CO

Several weeks back, I was invited by Colorado Common Cause to give a workshop at their monthly membership meeting in Denver, Colorado, on Bridging the Divide: or How to Have a “Productive” Political Conversation. This was an exciting opportunity to connect with this fantastic organization and share some of the best practices from the NCDD network on how to navigate emotionally-heated conversations.

Huge thank you to all the participants who attended the event and made it an engaging experience! Another big thank you to Caroline Fry from Colorado Common Cause for inviting NCDD to come speak with their members and share some of the tools and wisdom from our network to help better bridge divides.

Caroline kicked off the meeting with a brief intro to Colorado Common Cause –  an org that has been working for over four decades to improve democratic processes by reducing barriers to voting, working to ensure that elections are run fairly, reducing the influence of money in politics, and that our government is being held accountable through more transparent practices.

During the workshop, I shared the transformative work being done in the NCDD network to enable people to connect more authentically with each other, build deeper relationships, and engage in challenging conversations- specifically around heated political issues. I spoke on the importance of humanizing each other and finding common ground by connecting to our shared values; and how this work is possible in even the most painful conflicts (though it is by no means easy). I lifted up examples from our NCDD members of tools that help facilitate having challenging conversations and shared some deliberative processes that hold space for these conversations while contributing toward policy-making.

Finally, I shared a couple of upcoming events with participants, that I encourage you to join in!

  • National Week of Conversation is going on right now until this Saturday, April 28th – join this national movement to improve listening, deepen our connections through conversation, and better heal the divisiveness in our society. Join an event already planned on the National Week of Conversation site here or create your own, maybe using the resources provided on NWOC or right here on the NCDD Resource Center.
  • Our upcoming National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation is being held this November 2-4 in Downtown Denver. Our conferences are an exciting mingling of enthusiasts and practitioners in dialogue, deliberation, and engagement work and we encourage you to learn more here.
    • “Super Early Bird” tickets are now available for a limited time, so make sure you act fast to utilize this great low rate by clicking here.
    • The theme for this year’s conference is “Connecting and Strengthening Civic Innovators”, and our intention is to focus on how we can further uplift dialogue, deliberation, and engagement work; learn more details on the theme here.
    • For folks interested in presenting a session at NCDD2018, the call for proposals is currently open for concurrent sessions – learn more here.

You can watch the full live stream of the workshop in the video below. I’ve also included a link to the resource doc I shared which has the exercises we did, as well as, the resources I referenced – which you can find here.

If you like what you see – NCDD staff would love to come hold a workshop with your group, organization, or event!  We are happy to tailor the workshop to your needs for navigating challenging conversations. I am located in Denver, Managing Director Courtney Breese is in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Co-Founder Sandy Heierbacher is in Boston; all of us can travel to our respective surrounding areas to hold workshops. For folks that are located outside of these places, contact us and let’s see if we can coordinate logistics with travel or technology to make a workshop happen for you! Please contact me at keiva[at]ncdd[dot]org for workshop inquiries. 

About Colorado Common Cause
Colorado Common Cause is a non-profit organization fighting for open, honest and accountable government. We work to strengthen public participation and to ensure that government and the political process serve the public interest, rather than the special interests.

We believe the serious issues that confront our society – problems like lack of affordable health care and quality education, poverty, discrimination, and global warming – will only be solved when government is responsive to the needs and the voices of its citizens, and not to the pressures of special interests. Partnering with groups representing diverse constituencies, we campaign to break down barriers to voting, ensure every vote is counted as cast, reduce the impact of special interest money in the political process, and promote open government and high ethical standards.

Follow on Twitter at @CommonCauseCO
Connect on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ColoradoCommonCause

Ben Franklin Circles and Understanding Common Ground

One of the more challenging realities when trying to find common ground is that often times the core understanding of words can be dramatically different than from someone “across the aisle”. As NCDD board member, Jacob Hess discusses in this relevant piece with NCDD member org, Ben Franklin Circles, while we live in a period of rampant hyperpartisanship – how can we work together to find common ground when folks can have fundamentally different definitions? How do we take this phenomenon into account when building relationships and working towards bridging these divides? We encourage you to read the post below and carry this with you as you also check out the National Week of Conversation, happening until April 28th, that works to do just this through connecting conversations. You can find the original post on BFC’s site here.

Rediscovering Common Ground We (Mostly) Share

In our polarized American landscape, we often hear that if we “just came together” around values we share, we could find a lot of common ground.

I believe that, but only partially. The reason is I’ve spent years talking with people across the political spectrum about some of these core values.

And for anyone who does that – and there are many wonderful civic, community and dialogue leaders who have done similar things – something obvious emerges. While we might, in fact, hold common agreements on the importance of certain key principles, values and virtues, we sure don’t agree on what those mean, how to define (or redefine) them in the modern age and what, if any, application and relevance they hold for the many complex issues facing society today. For example, what does “justice” mean today or “compassion” or “religious freedom”? (hint: not the same thing across the political spectrum).

This isn’t bad news. It’s just the way things are. Even the very words we use come to mean fundamentally different things. I was involved in a project in 2016 mapping these different meanings in collaboration with dialogue professionals across some of the more salient socio-political differences. The goal was to create some kind of a term guide that might help translate and clarify between these understandings (and perhaps encourage more humanizing in real life). Included in that Red Blue Dictionary (now hosted as the All Sides Dictionary) are the contested meanings for basic words like “American,” “facts” and “politically correct” and “progressive,” and other terms with uniquely triggering meanings (for some), such as “white privilege” and “politically correct.” Still other emotional terms have been variously defined in very broad or limited ways, depending on the context, including “extremist,” “radical,” “irrational,” “hate,” “bigot,” “racist,” and “anti-gay.”

In each case, we document and explore fundamentally different ways of conceiving these principles, terms and definitions – and in some cases, these values. Depending on that meaning, the words can be experienced and function in profoundly different ways. For instance, when defined broadly, the word “extremist” or “radical” can be used to shut down those we disagree with, and can be experienced as very silencing. And words like “fact” and “truth” may be experienced so differently that people are hardly speaking about the same thing. Once again, this is not bad news at all – as long as we’re aware it is happening (in which case, we can respond in some kind of a productive way).

Unfortunately in most cases, for most Americans, this is simply not happening. They are almost entirely unaware that some of the basic words they use might actually mean something remarkably different to their left-leaning neighbor or to their right-leaning uncle.

In the absence of that recognition, a couple of things happen: first, we have a very difficult time communicating. Imagine two people coming together speaking two languages, but not even aware they are speaking two languages. This is kind of what’s happening now according to many observers in America. “Let’s all fight for social justice!” says one progressive college student – hardly aware that this very word, “social justice” can feel like an existential threat to many conservatives. “As long as can uphold what is Biblical we’ll be okay as a society” says another religious conservative – with little awareness at how much of an existential threat this word now represents to those who identify as LGBT+.

You can guess what happens next: we get frustrated. Instead of realizing that this person sees the same fundamental principles in a different way, we lash out them, treating them somehow as if they are somehow inferior or motivated by selfishness or evil, because they actively oppose things that, to our mind and our community, seem eminently and urgently needed, good and right (and righteous).

You see, as long as we are not understanding how fundamentally we are seeing things differently, we are left to scramble for another explanation. And that explanation is served up by the professional polarizers that have become de facto leaders for so many communities in our country – across the political spectrum.

There are real fears on both sides of the spectrum that the other side is destroying the true fabric of the country and betraying its core values. And in vocalizing these fears, Americans tend to draw on heavy rhetoric that draws promiscuous boundary lines that contribute to an especially frightening picture – aka, all conservatives lumped together with white nationalists and all liberals lumped together with revolutionary Marxists, etc. And so it goes and goes and goes – and expands and metastasizes until we are so much at each other’s throats that more than one political commentator has openly wondered about the possibility of growing political-inspired violence on the horizon.

Getting people to come together across the divide won’t be easy. There’s no app for that. But there are ways forward, albeit not simplistic ones. For instance, we can begin by sitting with someone who doesn’t see the world as we do and actually hearing them out with sincere questions and honest curiosity. Let’s be honest. That’s hard work. Especially now. Especially with our minds so cluttered by the residue of professional provocateurs so much so that their aggressive angst sit on the tip of our own tongue.

But here’s the good news: for those willing to actually go there, to actually try this, to actually sit with their discomfort and listen – really listen, not the fake kind, not the ‘let-me-watch-for-whatever-opening-I-need-to-expose-the-ridiculous-delusion-of-this-other-person’ kind – for those willing to do that, things can change. And things do change…dramatically.

Trust me. I’ve lived this for over a decade. As a conservative Mormon, some of my best friends and most cherished relationships include atheist professors, lesbian activists and even some crazy, adorable Marxists. My own fear and anger to my many political opposites has lightened, and given way to curiosity and affection. From experience, I know that fear can evaporate. The animosity can diminish. And affection can grow. And all of a sudden, you’re falling in love in small, but real ways, with your political opponents.

Earlier this year, I saw these principles in action in a group I joined called a Ben Franklin Circle. There were 6 across the political spectrum who came together to discuss one of Franklin’s 13 virtues to live by. For example, we spent one meeting talking about the virtue of sincerity, what it meant and how (and whether) it applied to society today. Then we looked at ways to apply it and maybe experiment with it more in our own lives. It was so sweet that I still remember how refreshing it felt.

Say what you want about the founding fathers. Disagree with many of the positions that they and most Americans at the time happened to hold. But one thing we might all agree upon is that they understood the value of virtues like, honesty, integrity, like moderation—virtues that seem in short supply today.

What if we made space – even just a little, even just once in awhile – for these virtues by coming together to direct our attention, on purpose, to one of these ideals? We would talk together about what they mean and whether they are applicable to us today—and if so, what they call on us to try in our lives – and what they could mean for our country.

Once again, we won’t agree on those answers, but that’s not the point. It’s really never been the point. Because as soon as we have a conversation. Things change, for all of us. And that might be just what America needs right now.

You can find the original version of this post on Ben Franklin Circle’s at https://benfranklincircles.org/ben-franklin-circle-hosts/rediscovering-common-ground-we-mostly-share.

the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology

Let’s assume that individuals have ethical responsibilities: each of us must strive to do what is right. However, our knowledge, self-discipline, and capacity to influence the world are all severely limited. Therefore, we are obliged to participate in groups that aggregate information, motivate their members, hold them accountable, and obtain collective power. Within groups, our individual responsibility shifts into an obligation to exercise either voice or exit. “Loyalty” means a commitment to the group; but it shades into “complicity” when the group does wrong.

This is a purely secular thesis, but it can draw on religious debates about similar issues. I’ll focus here on Christian views, mainly because I know them better than I know other traditions.

There are startling differences among Christian communities–from storefront charismatic churches and Quaker meeting houses to Orthodox monasteries and the global Catholic Church. However, it is a virtually unanimous Christian view that the soul is individual; it stands before God for separate judgment. Christians reject theories of a shared or universal soul. Thus all Christian theologians believe that it matters what each human person thinks and does.

At the same time, it is essential to Christianity that human beings are cognitively and motivationally limited–“fallen.” Thus all Christians see the benefits of being religious in groups that guide their members and speak and act collectively. Although the papal curia looks very different from a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, both are groupings of morally responsible individuals.

Only a caricature of Catholicism portrays it as a papal dictatorship. The papacy has been stronger since Pius IX (1846–1878) than it ever was before, but even in this era of relative centralization, the teachings and actions of the Church result from the whole community; and all Catholics are obliged to exercise voice within the Church. But Catholics have a strong obligation of loyalty and not much of a moral right of exit. That is because mainstream Catholic thought emphasizes the special standing of the Church. It was instituted by Jesus when he called the apostles and gave the keys of the kingdom to Peter.

No one believes that the visible Church is pervasively infallible; it is a human institution. But Catholics hold that our mortal limitations make organization indispensable, and God has selected one organization to mediate for all individuals. (“Catholic” means universal.) Wrecked on a desert island, you should do your best, and God will understand. But if you can, you must participate in the global Church in order to be right with God. If, in your opinion, the Church errs, then your responsibility is to improve it by exercising voice.

Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church because of his premise that conscience is logically inalienable. It’s not only wrong to try to delegate or share one’s moral responsibility; that is a contradiction. Responsibility always remains fully yours, by definition. In 1520, Luther wrote, “In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism, as St. Peter in 1 Peter 2[:9] says, ‘You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom,’ and Revelation [5:10], ‘Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings.'”

Why then do Lutherans have churches at all? (They even employ people in special garb who, at least in countries like Sweden and Finland, are called “Lutheran priests.”) Lutherans share with Catholics the assumption that the individual human being is too frail to believe or do right, and a group is necessary. They also agree that receiving spiritual help from other people does not negate personal moral responsibility. Their disagreement with Catholics is that they maintain a right of exit in cases of conflict between individual conscience and any particular group. That means that they are pluralists about groups, while Catholics are unitary.

Two other issues that are relevant to secular or “civic” groups are also emphasized in some Christian denominations. One is deliberation: the expression of personal views as part of a group’s search for shared truth. Making deliberation a transcendent value distinguishes Quakers from other Protestants, but it is present in all denominations to various degrees. Erasmus, for example, tried to make the consensus of believers a definitive feature of Catholicism.

The other issue is tradition: loyalty to the values and beliefs that have emerged over time, rather than those that are authored by any nameable human beings. Orthodoxy is particularly deferential to tradition. Whenever possible, the Orthodox prefer to acknowledge practices that have emerged, rather than make discretionary decisions. That practice is consistent with a very strong belief in individual cognitive limitations, combined with some faith in the ability of people to learn from accumulated experience.

All of these ideals–tradition, deliberation, plurality, unity, exit, voice, loyalty, conscience–are also available to secular groups; and often the best arguments for each principle have been developed by theologians.

See also: a typology of denominationssystem, organism, person, organization, institution: some definitionsfrom I to we: an outline of a theoryThe truth in Hayek; and what defines an organization? the case of the global sanghaSt. Margaret of Cortona and medieval populism

NIFI During NWOC and A Public Voice 2018 on May 9th

This week, people are hosting and participating in conversations around the country as part of the National Week of Conversation (and going on until this Saturday, April 28th). NWOC is an opportunity for folks to come together through conversation and build relationships, in order to continue healing the divisive state of our society. The National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) and the Kettering Foundation – both NCDD member organizations – have created an issue guide to facilitate public deliberation around immigration; which is both a resource for NWOC and to be featured in their upcoming A Public Voice 2018 event (#APV2018) happening May 9th.

A Public Voice is an annual event, created to engage people around an important issue through deliberative forums, then bring together Washington DC policymakers and deliberative democracy practitioners to discuss results of the public’s feedback on that issue. You can learn about the several NIFI events happening this week during NWOC, both in person and online (search “Common Ground for Action”), using this issue guide or their previous guides. We encourage you to read the announcement in the post below and find more information on the APV2018’s site here.

A Public Voice – 2018

For more than 30 years, the Kettering Foundation, in collaboration with the National Issues Forums Institute, has organized A Public Voice, which brings together policymakers and practitioners of deliberative democracy from around the country to discuss insights from citizen deliberations.

A Public Voice 2018 focuses on an issue important to all Americans: immigration. After extensive research and testing with citizens around the country, the Kettering Foundation prepared an issue guide for the National Issues Forums (NIF): Coming to America: Who Should We Welcome, What Should We Do? Citizen deliberations using the issue guide are taking place throughout 2018 in public forums around the country. In these public forums, citizens consider the options for dealing with a problem, share their views, and weigh the costs and benefits of possible actions. Forums are held both online and face-to-face, typically last 90 minutes, and attract participants of all ages from all walks of life.

Scheduled for May 9, 2018, this year’s A Public Voice will present early insights from NIF immigration forums around the country, giving policymakers the chance to learn more about citizen deliberation and its role in our democracy. The session will also include an exchange among policymakers and deliberative democracy practitioners about issues the NIF network might tackle in the future. In early 2019, the Kettering Foundation and National Issues Forums Institute will publish a final report on the 2018 NIF immigration forums, followed by briefings for individual elected officials, Capitol Hill staffers, and other policymakers.

You can find the original version of this on the site for A Public Voice 2018 at www.apublicvoice.org