Several people on the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation list have been noticing the line taken by US Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton regarding engaging in dialogue with Americans. Both candidates have launched their campaings with a promise to engage Americans in conversations to learn more about what’s on the collective mind.
For the next several weeks, I am going to talk with people from around the country, listening and learning more about the challenges we face as a nation, the opportunities that lie before us, and the role that a presidential campaign might play in bringing our country together. And on February 10th, at the end of these decisions and in my home state of Illinois, I’ll share my plans with my friends, neighbors and fellow Americans
No matter where you live, no matter what your political views, I want you to be a part of this important conversation right at the start. So to begin, I’m going to spend the next several days answering your questions in a series of live video web discussions. Starting Monday, January 22, at 7 p.m. EST for three nights in a row, I’ll sit down to answer your questions about how we can work together for a better future. And you can participate live at my website. Sign up to join the conversation here.
I have had experience with the political process as a policy maker, citizen engagement consultant, lobbyist and within party structures here in Canada.
I generally give very little stock to politicians that talk about dialogue in the context of a political campaign. That isn’t to say that some parties and politicians don’t genuinely believe in the dialogue process. It’s just that in the context of a a campaign there is too much at stake to actually have a real dialogue with the public.
Before a politican launches a campaign, the dialogue is is mostly over. It has been held with people in the party, with the supporters of the candidate and those in the structures of power that need the confidence to endorse this one person as representative of their views and interests. No one would put millions of dollars into a political campaign that was going to find its agenda through dialogue with citizens.
Having said that, I have been remarkably surprised over the years at how much incredibly deep dialogic deliberation actually goes on behind the scenes in various party circles and in the corridors of power. While some of this is simply naked influence, political parties can sometimes be interesting crucibles for ideas to tackle the biggest issues facing a country.
And certainly I have had many, many experiences where polticians, once elected, engage in deeper dialogue with citizens. Once the election is won, the ones who truly care about dialogue are free to attend and engage in the Open Space meeting, the talking circles, World Cafe’s, and other intensive dialogues with citizens where the outcome is unknown and what is needed is openness and willingness to explore ideas, away from preconceived notions and ideologies. I have worked with provincial premiers, federal and provincial cabinet ministers, members of the opposition, municipal and regional leaders as well using all of these tools and processes, and the politcians have nearly always made the point that they have learned something in the process of engaging in dialogue.
I think this must be true in the States as well, at the more local levels of governance. It would surprise and delight me to see a president engage so vulnerably though, especially with all that is invested in the outcomes of a presidency. Instead what tends to happen is that they loosen the tie, grab the hand held mic and stand in a town hall where they engage in some friendly and spirited cross-examination with public and don’t really learn anything at all. And this seems peculiar to America, in which the leader doesn’t have the same polticial accountability that our prime ministers have by having to face questions in Parliament. In that context, where a president can spend eight years as a hermit, a town hall is a startling thing to see. But it’s not dialogue as we all know, and it conforms to the same safe approach to citizen engagement that protects the political investmnts in the holder of high office.
I think the proof of the tasting for these leadership hopefuls will be first of all in how they respond to the grassroots dialogues that do emerge around their compaigns, a tack taken by Howard Dean in 2000. And then it will be interesting to see what happens when and if they actually get elected, but it would surprise me if even Barack Obama turned to conversations with Americans to set policy in the same way with the same weight that he responded to conversations with the power structures that set tha American agenda regardless of who is in office – large multinational commercial interests, global poltical alliances, economic markets and domestic advisors and strategists.
[tags]Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, politics[/tags]