America Speaks: The federal budget, the limits of consensus, and a confession

photo credit, America Speaks

A good friend of mine was very involved in the local contingent of the national deliberative process around the federal budget, earlier this year, through the organization America Speaks. A couple of days after the town hall, she and I were waiting for our kids to finish swimming lessons, and, as we often do, talking about democracy and public policy and social change, instead of…whatever else we might talk about?

And, while I don’t remember exactly, I can imagine that I might have rolled my eyes a bit. Because the truth is, as many of those who had social work classes with me, or those who have shared a table with me at any sort of deliberative process function know, I have this major ambivalence about the whole “consensus-building” process.

I’m totally pro-citizen engagement, as you know–but that’s citizen engagement with those in power, vying for power themselves, making a mark on the policymaking process, making their voices heard by those with the authority to do something about it.

And that’s where the disconnect has often been for me with these facilitated ‘conversations’ about critical social issues: they can give sitting around with people who have absolutely no intention nor ability to change anything the appearance of being real democracy, which, I believe, can actually do significant harm. People who feel that things should have changed because they spent 4 hours (or, in this case, 8!) talking about them (and, in fact, are given the impression that they will) can lose heart and disengage from the tactics that would be more likely to bring results.

There are few things more disempowering than false empowerment.

So, I probably said something about how I’m less interested in consensus and more interested in building the power that will enable me to win (my most infamous example of this frustration with process comes after a painful seminar on consensus organizing, when I admittedly told the woman who had illustrated the philosophy behind the approach with a “tiny fire of smoldering embers” that, “sometimes, what we need is a big ass bonfire to really burn some stuff up.”)

So that gives you a sense of how I struggle with this stuff.

Still, when some of my students brought up the America Speaks: Our Budget, Our Economy session during class discussion on the federal budget last week, I resolved to sit down and really go through their work. Because, to a large extent, something that can get people worked up enough about reasonable strategies for deficit reduction is doing something very, very right.

And, I’ll say it.

I was wrong. Okay, partially.

Because there is really a lot to get excited about, at least in the way that this particular organization approaches the whole deliberative democracy idea, even if I still have a lot of caveats to my enthusiasm.

What I love:

  • Engagement is off the charts: they had 3500 participants in 60 cities, 1600+ fans on Facebook, and more than 49 comments to a blog post summarizing the preliminary results. The challenge, of course, is to translate engagement in that process to engagement in the political one, but, still, that’s a level of ongoing participation that is bound to teach people a lot of the very skills (holding firm in their positions, articulating their values, communicating dense policy information) that they’ll need to succeed in advocacy in the policymaking venue, too.
  • They’ve obviously thought about how to make the message resonate with the intended audience–there was A LOT more here in terms of testimony to Congress, a press strategy, and even participation by members of Congress (9 were part of the day’s events) than I had mentally given them credit for, or than I have often experienced in these kinds of conversations.
  • The level of depth and breadth in the proposed recommendations is commendable, and quite sophisticated–another painful memory of mine is sitting through a daylong discussion of how to end poverty in my state that ended with, seriously, a consensus that we should have “a working group” dedicated to the issue. I was even invited to be on it! Um, no thanks. By contrast, the folks at America Speaks had very specific, actionable (and, therefore, objectionable, but that’s a lot of what I like about them!) recommendations that are really quite close to legislative proposals.
  • They’re thinking about how to move people to action–they have sample letters to the editor and have briefed members of Congress (and, I hope, providing tools to help participants do likewise), and their website includes a “take action” button. For that alone, I owe they (and Brandi!) a sincere apology for any eye-rolling that may have occurred.

    But, still, I have a few worries. I’m not sure, really, that these are avoidable in this whole deliberative exercise, but they still concern me:

  • The whole “keypad polling” thing is reminiscent of American Idol and, I think, can give people a false sense that they really have a “vote” on matters like whether to raise the Social Security retirement age, leading to confusion about exactly how citizens interact with policy, and with policymakers.
  • There still seems to be a preoccupation with process. While I could say that I’m glad that people are learning to hold leaders accountable, most of those 49 comments related to the process of deliberation itself, and, honestly, frustration with how America Speaks was handling the analysis. With record deficits, onoing high unemployment rates, and dire need for investments in much of human welfare in this country, that seems like misplacement of some of this awesome energy.
  • Similarly, I still think that the focus on consensus exacerbates our discomfort with power, and how power can/should be used, in unproductive ways. The truth is that consensus doesn’t figure into our policymaking process AT ALL, and, to at least a certain extent, we have to recognize that if we’re going to get smart about doing the things that will get us the power we need.

    When we were talking about the local event, my friend lamented the protestors outside who were criticizing America Speaks for (in their opinion) including options that would threaten Social Security and ignored the potential of single-payer health care. I, on the other hand, was delighted. Because the truth is that we need that, too–people who will stand outside and scream, until the conversation happening inside has to shift, somewhat, to accommodate them.

    But, still, I stand largely corrected. And, Brandi, I promise, next time I’ll let you watch your kid swim.

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