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From: Bruce S.
Date: Friday, July 27, 2012, 9:10 AM
Subject: Letter to NCDD - Our Divided Political Heart
ID: 273071

Hi People, thanks for being here, thanks for your private responses to my earlier message on this theme.

Yesterday, I got a notification regarding a national dialogue and conversation project being developed by Joan Blades (founder of MoveOn and MomsRising) and Amanda Roman, called "Living Room Conversations".


This prompted me to post a description of the EJ book and project to the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD), introducing the book and my general interpretation of it - - which is that is provides a powerful and illuminating -- and new -- framework for transpartisan and integral political conversations.

And in my project to keep nagging EJ Dionne himself, I sent this letter to him as well, with a little preface mentioning that on Morning Joe this morning (MSNBC) they had a segment with Howard Dean that could be a "poster child" for the EJ thesis -- as these guys battled in exactly the predictably polarized categories that EJ is talking about.

Here's my letter to EJ and NCDD...


Good morning, Mr. Dionne. I’m getting ready to write a message to Mika and Joe of Morning Joe – to describe a segment on their show this morning as a poster-child for your thesis, where they had Howard Dean presenting the communitarian side and hard-headed Joe pushing for exactly that right-handed libertarian free-market thesis you describe as one side of the equation – and, of course, with Mika rolling her eyes...

But for right now – here is a longish email letter to the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) – a national cadre of experts with a mailing list of more than 1000 mostly professionals, who all received my below letter in their email boxes this morning.

If we do want to create a “National Project on the Long Consensus” – these guys could be at the heart of it, helping us mediate conversations all over the USA, that not only follow their highly informed and professionally tested guidelines, but could be set into the context of your very uplifting and inspiring thesis.

- Bruce Schuman, Santa Barbara


From: Bruce Schuman [mailto:originresearch@cox.net]
Sent: Friday, July 27, 2012 7:20 AM
Subject: Our Divided Political Heart - some thoughts

Dear NCDD –

Thanks so much for your continuing series of inspiring and skillful ideas. Perhaps more so now than ever, it seems our political environment could (and should) be uplifted by the kind of insights that flow through this place. Thanks also to the “democracy theorists” who are aware of so many subtleties in this area – particularly Tom Atlee, with his books and floods of insights on enlightened and “wise” politics…

In this note, I want to mention a new book on the scene, that has had a big impact on me.


I have been exploring “transpartisan” approaches to politics for several years now, and most of my ideas have involved “civility guidelines” and guidelines to good dialogue and collaboration – of the type found in such abundance here, or maybe at a place like Everyday Democracy - http://www.everyday- democracy.org/en/index.aspx

But in the last couple of months – I have been experiencing something that feels like another major step forward in this area – and I would be very interested in what anyone else here might have to say about my response to the vision and thesis of the new book by Washington Post columnist and TV pundit EJ Dionne. Its title is “Our Divided Political Heart – The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent”, and it has been publicized through appearances on national television and through a national tour. EJ Dionne was here in Santa Barbara on June 20, and we did have a chance to briefly meet him and get an autographed copy.

I have found myself mesmerized by the thesis of this book – which reviews American political history – and proposes that America has been most successful during those periods when it has held certain critical tensions in balance –in a kind of tacit and implicit but robust social agreement or contract that EJ Dionne calls “the long consensus”.

His core thesis revolves around two basic points. First, EJ says that the fundamental dimension or tension within American politics is the tension between individualism (libertarianism, absolute personal freedom) and communitarianism (commitment of the individual to the welfare of the social group or community). It’s akin to the tension between “rights” and “responsibilities” – which a traditional high school course in civics might suggest are the two poles of a healthy society -- and covers many of the basic issues that political leaders and groups are battling over today. And secondly, he says that the long consensus that has contained and managed this tension and held our national conversation together for most of the 20th century is today shattered.

In his introduction (p.3), EJ writes:

Underlying our political impasse is a lost sense of national balance that in turn reflects a loss of historical memory. Americans disagree about who we are because we can't agree about who we've been. We are at odds over the meaning of our own history, over the sources of our national strength, and over what it is, philosophically and spiritually, that makes us "Americans." The consensus that guided our politics through nearly all of the twentieth century is broken. In the absence of a new consensus, we will continue to fight - and to founder.

Building a new consensus will be impossible if the parties to our political struggles continue to insist that a single national trait explains our success as a nation and that a single idea drives and dominates our story. At the heart of this book is a view that American history is defined by an irrepressible and ongoing tension between two core values: our love of individualism and our reverence for community.

In other words, 1) The national consensus that guided us for 100 years or more is currently broken, and it must be fixed or replaced somehow, and 2) the core dimension that has always characterized our contentious politics is the tension between individualism and community.

I have found this thesis very persuasive, in part because in the past I have tended to see American politics in terms of this same basic dimension – and because I have felt – like many on this NCDD list, I suspect – that enlightened “civility guidelines” of the type taught here could take us a long ways beyond the impasse that leaves our current congress in gridlock (Ezra Klein on MSNBC last night gave a long presentation on the theme “Worst. Congress. Ever” – and defended that claim with some strong statistics. Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have a book out on this theme – “It’s Even Worse Than You Think”. )

EJ’s book, in my opinion, brings a lot of new light to this challenging situation.

His basic theme, in the context of this general analysis – is that tendencies to emphasize one side of the freedom/community axis, at the expense of the other – throw our society out of balance, and lead to explosive and dangerous battles.

His theme of “balance” becomes very important – and is perhaps the real meaning of the sometimes confusing word “center” that is often heard in discussion of transpartisan politics, and is sometimes dismissed as trivial. But “balance” – helps us understand – and might also help us understand what might be wrong with rigid resistance to “compromise” – as something more than simply refusing to “acknowledge the other”. So maybe – I am thinking – it’s not only “civility” that we need to hold our conversations together – we also need critical balance in the core dimension, and awareness of it, so as to avoid destructive one-sided positions on issues.

If you believe that the only valid side of the liberty/community dimension is your side – and the other side is “UnAmerican” – you can lock in very hard on your principles, and feel quite confident in your refusal to “compromise”. We are seeing this every day in American politics – and it’s leading to some very hard-headed and probably injurious battles. These people are often “polite” in their deep absolute rejection of a differing point of view.

EJ shows clearly, I believe, that both sides of this dimension are genuinely and profoundly “American” – and that unbalanced or “one-sided” views are destructive and dangerous – or indicative of bad (inaccurate) history – and perhaps could be understood as misleading temptations to a seductive oversimplification.

There’s a great interview on the Jon Stewart Daily Show, that makes this point about fallacious history, citing a profound argument between signers of the constitution who disagreed deeply about its meaning only three years after signing it.


"From the beginning, Americans have been torn by a deep tension -- between our love of freedom and our love of community -- and when we keep this tension in balance, we do well as a country." EJ makes the argument that the Tea Party people look to a time of radical individualism in our country -- and particularly cites the "Gilded Age" as an example -- but then says that the next historical wave of response to this radicalism was a call back to balance -- led by progressive reformers -- and that "our government has been run under that balance, more or less, for the last hundred years." It’s this balance that he describes as “the long consensus”, that he argues is essential to our success as a nation.

"That balance is under an attack now, like it's never been attacked before"

Stewart says -- "You talk about Hamilton and Jefferson -- populism versus a central bank..."

EJ replies -- "Since the beginning of our republic, we have been arguing about what our constitution says. Three years after our constitution was adopted, Madison and Hamilton are arguing about whether the national bank that Hamilton wants to create is constitutional. If the original guys, who wrote the original document, are arguing about the original documents meaning -- what are we supposed to make of ‘originalism’ as a concept?"

In other words -- the notion that our founding fathers had a clear unanimity of intent on all issues, as some radical (and “historically revisionist”) people like to argue and presume -- is just silly. EJ’s Chapter 6 is entitled "One Nation Conceived in Argument" – and suggests that this is a brilliant key to the success of the United States. Our Constitution is broadly inclusive of contending perspectives held in balance -- and because this tension was held within it -- and because this tension held in balance tends to release the creative brilliance of a nation -- we became a brilliant and inspired country.

For many reasons, that are sometimes discussed here on NCDD, holding contending alternatives within the context of mutual respect is the key to releasing the creative power of a nation. We have to stop arguing for one side or the other of this equation, and step into a context that recognizes the validity and historical “Americanism” of both poles of this dimension.


So – here’s a couple of questions for NCDD theorists and visionaries and practitioners –

For me – this thesis has felt like a big step up, towards a more enlightened view. “Constructive disagreement” or “creative tension” has always been part of the American political dialogue. I think it is very helpful to consciously see and know this.

So the question is – does presenting this context somehow derail or interfere with the basic notion of “civility guidelines” – that in simplest terms, all we really need to move forward in a constructive process of “deliberative democracy” is to maintain respect and listening between the participants? Or – is it possible to introduce a kind of historical perspective and framework into the discussion – and work together to build agreement more or less within the framework of this very informed historical perspective?

I can feel in myself a growing resistance to models of dialogue that are based on “wisdom only” – but might be ignoring “historical knowledge” – maybe on the basis of claiming that “all history is in the eye of the beholder, and that therefore, no one version is ever accurate”. I think this latter view is too weak – that we do need something like “authoritative knowledge” about our national history – that within limits there is such a thing – and that this thesis of balance provides a critical new source of illumination into the quest for a improved kind of deliberative democracy in the USA.

Am I pushing this too hard? I feel the crunch in politics all around me, and the threat of a real “failure of governance” – and it feels to me like EJ has brought a critical new perspective, that does not replace or in any way denigrate the doctrines of healthy dialogue – but instead, is inviting good dialogue to step into an informed context (where yes, perhaps the details of this context should and must be negotiated, rather than simply “taking EJ’s word as authoritative”).

I got an interesting notification today, regarding a project entitled “Living Room Conversations” – organized by Amanda Roman (“Citizens in Charge”) and Joan Blades (“Moms Rising”, “MoveOn”). This is a call to organize transpartisan conversations throughout the USA, generally based on NCDD-style civility guidelines.


I want to see conversations like this all over the United States – but I am also feeling that the EJ framework could provide a tremendous source of illumination for this kind of project, and I would love to see it emerge as a collaborative project involving scholars and students and others who can see this view – maybe dovetailed in some way with Living Room Conversations...

Anybody have a comment or response to any of this??

Thanks so much for your patience with this long question...

- Bruce Schuman
Santa Barbara

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