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Carolyn Lukensmeyer Headshot

What Does It Take to Have a Civil Conversation These Days?

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On Tuesday, AmericaSpeaks will release a report on the results of our June 26 National Town Meeting on the nation's fiscal future. The report will provide additional insight into what a diverse group of 3,500 Americans had to say when they sat down with one another for seven hours to talk about the federal budget.

Above and beyond the conclusions reached by people in the national discussion, what really stands out to me is the tone and quality of what took place.

Based on watching the news these days, it would be safe to predict that fights would break out if you sat thousands of people together from across the political spectrum and asked them to talk about sensitive political questions. Instead, we saw that people had the courage to sit down with one another and really listen to each other. There was plenty of disagreement, but the disagreements tended to be civil and respectful.

MaryEllen, a participant from Albuquerque, wrote:

It was so refreshing to have civil discourse among people of different ages, persuasions, and backgrounds. Congress could learn a lot from our experience. The tone of our discussions was polite, respectful, and everyone contributed.

Fran, a participant from Portland, OR, echoed this sentiment when she said:

The most important thing I learned from this process is that ordinary citizens could tackle a complex issue, filter it civilly through their own perspective, and come up with consensus. I literally did not think this was possible.

Early in the meeting, we asked participants what they thought about the tone and quality of political discussions today. 89% of them said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. At the end of the National Town Meeting, we asked them what they thought about the tone and quality of the discussions in which they had been a part. 91% said they were very satisfied or satisfied.

Among the participants, only 15% said that they had not at all been influenced by the views of others in the discussion and only 3% said that they didn't learn anything.

Contrary to portrayals from the mainstream media, people can come together and find common ground. At many tables across the country, we had conservative members of Tea Parties sitting together with liberal members of groups like MoveOn. I'm quite certain that this was the first time many of them had spoken to each other and that most came to the discussion with a fair amount of skepticism.

But report after report agreed that these kinds of conversations reflect what our democracy should be; people coming together to learn from one another and identifying shared priorities on pressing problems facing our nation.

There are a few principles that I think are essential for convening the public in civil, productive deliberations. I hope that we can see more public forums using them.

  • First, we need to create forums that attract the true diversity of our communities by age, race, income and political ideology.
  • Second, we need to create spaces in which people from every walk of life feel safe to openly share their points of view in a way that will be respected and heard.
  • Third, we need to provide people with information that has credibility and has been vetted by a diverse enough set of experts so that it has as little bias as possible.
  • Finally, we need to support discussions with skilled facilitators who can help keep a group on track, make sure everyone is heard, and foster consensus building.

We'll soon be sharing specific results about what people had to say at the National Town Meeting, but I think it is important to step back from this content and consider what was most important about this unique opportunity to convene people from across the country in a real national conversation. It was a chance to realize our greatest hopes for our democracy.

In the words of Ray, a participant from Overland Park, KS: "It was a life changing event. I would do it again tomorrow."

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