Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

Posts Tagged Asteroids Club

Today is Town Meeting Day in Vermont (and what that has to do with civil politics)

The Village Square recently kicked off an initiative called "Our Town," with a goal to revive a local town hall (both in person and online).  Our first event was 225+ standing-room-only, livestreamed by the local newspaper and live-tweeted, so we are off to a good start.  We were lucky enough to have stellar partners in the Tallahassee Democrat and Leadership Tallahassee, but also central to our success was framing the programs as central to ideals we share, despite political divisions that also exist.  Once we define ourselves as in community with our neighbors (The Righteous Mind’s groupish “hive”), everything starts to change.  The pizza also didn't hurt as in our experience sharing a meal immediately defines a shared community. We have learned repeatedly that for minds to change, hearts must open first.  Below is the editorial printed ahead of the event in the Tallahassee Democrat; it is our direct appeal to hearts.
 
There’s nothing more quintessentially American than a town hall meeting.  It’s how the business of American community has gotten done from just about the moment the first disaffected European foot hit ground in the New World. 
 
Even if you’ve never attended one, the town meeting is buried so deep in our country’s psyche that you can probably immediately call up its intimate details – rows of folding chairs, town council up front with only a school lunch table to define their status, a charmless but functional meeting room.  Someone probably saw to it that there would be coffee and cookies.  Overachievers might organize a potluck. 
 
Colorful characters are always in attendance, because we’re a country full of colorful characters.

Nowhere in the world is the town meeting more central to a nation’s story. There’s a legitimate reason for this, as it is a perfect manifestation of the fundamental shift from European monarchy to governance by and for the people.  In this new country without a king to issue edicts, someone was going to have to make a few decisions.  
 
To be sure, muddling through local governance issues isn’t our first choice on how to spend an evening.  There are grievances that aren’t ours, people who drone on too long, chairs that occasionally are thrown in anger, and a tangled web of alternatives that can make even a wonky constable’s head throb.  All in all, town meetings are pretty sloppy affairs.  But then so is democracy.   The messiness is a small price to avoid nasty kings with guillotines.
 
Within the ethos of the town meeting is the important founding principle that political foes must grudgingly become partners as they engage conflicting ideas in order to govern.  But unlike our founding generation who had no choice but to roll up their sleeves and do the uncomfortable but necessary work of dealing with disagreement face-to-face, these days we’re having fewer conversations of substance with people who don’t see things our way.  Bunkered up at home with our favorite websites and news station, it’s become so much easier to vilify the people we used to share our meetings with.   It’s left us feeling less compelled to suffer through the vicissitudes of the town meeting.  
 
In an environment of “tribal” information sources, local disagreements tend to be seen simplistically through the prism of the divide on national issues, as skirmishes in a countrywide partisan war rather than the unique and complex local situations they usually are.   It’s our national dysfunction taken root in hometown America, and it’s not helping us make good decisions where we live.
 
So at the very time when we most need to bring our “A” game to solving civic problems, our conversations too often consist of stomping on toes, throwing sand, and various other playground antics.   When a town hall meeting is held, it tends to become a venue for villagers with pitchforks (rude signs anyway) to vent their rage.
 
In the seven years since we first dreamed up the notion of The Village Square – an organization dedicated to restoring constructive conversation across the partisan divide – we repeatedly return to the same truth:  Washington is never going to fix this for us.  If we want it to be different, it’s going to be neighbors like us in hometowns like this one who get it done.  This is where we share carpools, softball teams and borrow cups of sugar.
 
It’s only in our town where we can have the messy, quirky, spectacularly American conversation of democracy.
 
We think it’s about time we bring back the humble town hall.  We’re calling our 21st century version “Our Town,” but it’s really the same old-fashioned idea that built this country.  In the coming years we’ll be hosting a regular series of unique neighborly (and possibly even entertaining) get-togethers all about where we live. 
 
We’re convinced it’s America’s ideal writ large when her hometowns are healthy and tended to.  In fact, we hope that one day we can teach Washington a thing or two.  In a country by and for the people, isn’t that exactly how it should be?

– Liz Joyner

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Please check out the very early development of our nationwide online Get Local project by clicking on first Florida, then Tallahassee.  Later in the project, we'll make pages like these available for every state and community.  It's a fully user-editable (like Wikipedia), totally scalable (from neighborhoods to international) public policy wiki.  Our goal: Civilized debate on the internet. (Wish us luck…)

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Tom Edsall’s Guide to What Each Side Gets Right

Tom Edsall, a journalism professor at Columbia who writes for the New York Times' "Campaign Stops" blog, recently undertook an illuminating project. He asked a few liberals to say what they think conservatives are right about, and he asked a few conservatives to say what they thought liberals were right about. There was some consensus on each side, and some real honest praise for the other side,  although Edsall noted that liberals were more "full throated" in their cross-party praise than were conservatives. (One small confound in Edsall's analysis: he counted me as a liberal, which I was until a year or so ago. Now I'm a centrist who is full throated in his praise of liberals and conservatives, while being quite critical of the two Parties, particularly the Republican party.)

First, here is his column on What the Right gets Right, according to liberals. Here are a few of the points of praise of conservatives:

“They appreciate more instinctively the need for fiscal balance.”

“They understand people’s more innate belief in hard work and individual responsibility and see government as too often lacking that understanding.”

They recognize “the importance of material incentives in shaping behavior, and the difficulty in keeping bureaucracies under control and responsive to citizens.”

The detect threats to "moral capital" (the resources that sustain order and trust) which liberals often cannot perceive.

And here is his column on What the Left gets Right, according to conservatives.
Common themes:

Liberals recognize the real problems facing the poor, the hardships resulting from economic globalization and the socially destructive force of increasing inequality.

Liberals do not dismiss or treat as ideologically motivated scientific findings, especially the sharpening scientific consensus that human beings contribute significantly to climate change.

Liberals stand with those most in need, and believe in the inclusion of such previously marginalized groups as blacks, Hispanics, women and gays.

Bottom line: Both sides acknowledge the "yin-yang" dynamic. Both sides realize that the other side makes important points, which their own side would not otherwise notice or respond to. Just reading Edsall's two posts back to back may be a great way to prepare for civil interactions across the divide.

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.