Is our democracy broken? A way forward...

Nationally, the leadership team is composed of such divergent organizations as the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institute, along with a great number of folks in between.

By Kathleen Joy of Portland, Oregon. Kathleen is the executive director of Oregon Volunteers, the Oregon Commission for Voluntary Action & Service - the agency that manages the AmeriCorps program in Oregon. In 2007, she contributed "How can we re-engage our communities?"

Amidst all the shouting and posturing that passes for political dialogue in America today, there's a question that looms: Is our democracy broken? Is it possible for Americans of varying viewpoints and divergent backgrounds to come together to come to a consensus, or even, just have a rational conversation? Can we use technology to bring Americans together - rather than in isolated ideological echo chambers?

On Saturday, June 26 at the Oregon Convention Center, we believe we can. We’re looking to engage a broad cross-section of northern Oregonians in a national conversation about the nation’s rising spending and ever-expanding debt. The event is intended to bring communities together despite political, ideological or regional differences on federal debt and spending. Portland is one of 20 locations across the country in which people will gather to take part in a virtual town hall meeting.

Coordinating the national effort is America Speaks, a nonprofit group that is using technology to erase regional barriers and to create conversations across broad distances. The goal is to connect folks in Washington, D.C. with the ideas and concerns of everyday Oregonians.

National and local organizers want to do it without the hot rhetoric, misleading "facts" and political spin that recently have made such conversations divisive and counterproductive.

Here’s a broad overview of the event day: Experts will frame the budget debate through a series of presentations; participants across the nation will then be asked to deliberate locally about policy options; and participants will then be asked to share their ideas with the rest of the nation using electronic media. The event will be broadcast online and open to the press. A preliminary report outlining the decisions the participants have made to balance the budget will be handed out at the end of the event and will be posted at

The results of the town hall will then be shared with the members of the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

Here in Oregon, working through the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State University, more than 22 local organizations, ranging from organized labor to local government to Americans for Prosperity, have joined together to ensure that the participants at the Portland event reflect the ethnic, economic, and ideological diversity of the region. We know that this effort won’t succeed unless we are all willing to come together to listen and to learn from each other.

Nationally, the leadership team is composed of such divergent organizations as the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institute, along with a great number of folks in between. The national effort is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Please plan to join us for this important conversation. For more information, or to register, go to

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    Great post, and great project, Kathleen. It's exciting to see growing interest in citizen deliberation at the state and national levels. I hope folks here at BO check this out and get involved. This kind of work holds a lot of promise for moving past the tough political problems and toward real solutions.

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    I wish you the best, and don't want to be discouraging, but I suspect you have heard the criticisms about this project.

    The project assumes as sort of "collective wisdom" (from the American Speaks website) that resides in the American public.

    This faith in the wisdom of the common people has its roots in Thomas Jefferson, but unfortunately has little basis in reality. I don't think fostering a belief that common folks know better how to solve the complex fiscal realities in America better than political and economic elites really helps "fix" our democracy. I might suggest, in fact, that continuing to reinforce these beliefs can do more damage than good. It feeds the all too common perception that all politicians are evil, all bureaucrats are incompetent, and if we could just have regular folks running government, things would be OK.

    Second, you may be familiar with literature that shows that deliberative forums, far from building some sort of consensus about problems, instead creates higher levels of disagreement and dissensus.

    If you want to "fix" American democracy (you suggest it is broken but don't say why), then in my own opinion, we have to educate citizens that it is OK to have differences of opinion, that politics involves compromises, and that policy making is messy business.

    I do, seriously, wish you good luck. I just hope you have not set your hopes too high.

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      Paul: I don't think this process is driven by the idea that members of the public "know better," but rather that the general public should be part of the conversation. The federal budget has implications for each of us, and this is an opportunity for us to deepend our understanding of some of the complexities you refer to and give some thoughtful opinions outside the crucible of high-stakes interest-based politics. While I agree with you that policy making requires compromise and a high tolerance for mess, we're not seeing a lot of that commitment to compromise in Congress, though we do get to witness a good deal of the mess. On this one, I'll lay my lot with the public--we can understand the issues and give meaningful, constructive input. Then, it's up to Congress and the President to decide what to do with it.

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    How about fixing what's going on in Garland County, Arkansas, which is the liberal challenger to blue-dog Linclon's strongest county?

    Reports are that the number of polling stations in the county have been reduced from over 40 for the first round to TWO for the runoff!

    What, the DLC (Dem Establishment) is adopting Ken Blackwell, illegal tactics, rather than expose them, which it certainly didn't trouble itself to do in the aftermath of 2004?

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    Hey, I think this is a fantastic idea. There are 2 problems however:

    1. Portland is to Oregon as Atlanta is to Georgia - as in not. How 'representative will these carefully chosen cities be of a diversity of thought and opinion urban v rural?

    2. Timing, as in many endeavors is everything. Saturday is opening round of USA in World Cup action and they play England. Bad timing going up against an event planned out 4 years in advance.

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      Kurt - The event will be June 26th not this Saturday (June 12), which is the opening round of USA vs. England. Hope that helps people who were conflicted!

      It would be great if folks from other parts of Oregon could take part - certainly there are some non-urban parts of the state that are within a short drive from Portland - a citizen of Astoria or Sandy, for example, brings a unique perspective to the table as a coastal resident.

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    This should be an interesting event. I hope it generates some honest discussions and some measurable impact on business as usual

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