The 2010 election cycle will see record spending by both big business and big labor. They’ll do their best to influence as many seats as possible, trying to maximize their legislative advantage…which, of course, translates into more power. Current estimates by the more-liberal Huffington Post and the more-conservative Values Voters News project a high-stakes battle between these two groups…with corporations spending more than unions by a 3-to-1 margin. The Supreme Court has already decided that this huge battle for influence is just a matter of free speech…but the inevitable media blitz is likely to drown out any other voices. In the spending battle of 2010, the public is certain to lose.
In a year when our economic recovery and the creation of jobs should be our primary concern, we’ll be hearing two totally self-serving messages…neither of which will help our primary job creators… locally-owned and operated small businesses. I’ve shared this perspective in previous posts…and will probably return to it again. It’s unfortunate, but true…many of our public policies are written to protect and to benefit groups that already wield a lot of power. Small businesses and local communities suffer most in economic downturns like our current Great Recession…and they are neither organized enough nor wealthy enough to wage their own lobbying or campaign wars to get any relief through federal legislation.
No one should be surprised…the winning side in these battles between big business and big labor celebrates the wisdom of the electorate while the losing side decries the corruption of democracy at the hands of their opponents. This isn’t a partisan problem…nor is it an ideological problem. This is certainly a participatory problem. Through the years…as politics has become a form of entertainment…public participation in governing decisions has decreased dramatically. So here we are in 2010…when most people get most of their information about the critical issues of the day from political entertainers and news media celebrities. It’s the perfect setting for a large-scale theater production…but it’s not healthy for public policy decisions that determine the vitality of our local communities.
I believe many people are hungry for safe places to actively participate in our shared governance. The emergence of the Tea Party movement communicates a rising level of frustration…and the response of the Coffee Party movement tries to channel these feelings into more productive, problem-solving efforts. The recent AmericaSpeaks events across the country gave us a glimpse at a more participatory form of governance…small group conversations linking values with policy options that then feed into big-picture networking. This is one instance where technology can enhance both the quality and value of local conversations. But these examples are not enough…we need more experiments in deliberative politics…particularly in local communities where the consequences of public policy decisions are actually felt.
We don’t need more distracting and deceiving messages from big business, big labor or our political entertainment industry…we need more local conversations where neighbors can weigh the benefits, consequences and trade-offs of various policy options within their local context. A variety of deliberative methods could each contribute their unique tools to these conversations…National Issues Forums, World Café, Everyday Democracy, Public Agenda, etc. For greater creativity and appeal, we should encourage people to frame a focal topic for conversation in several different ways. We shouldn’t have to choose one way to talk about a critical topic…in these conversations, we can all benefit from a number of lenses to inspect a central problem.
Then…it would seem that we have the capacity today to connect the most important points of agreement, using a variety of social networking venues. The result could be pretty powerful…people gathering to solve state and national problems from a local perspective. It’s clear to me that the trickle-down theory of elections where big business and big labor tell the public how to solve problems from their self-serving perspective isn’t working very well. Let’s get together with our neighbors to discuss the big topics of our times…and then share what we find in a variety of decentralized and creative social networking venues. People are hungry for safe places to have important public policy conversations. So…let’s get started. It doesn’t really matter where or how we begin…what matters is that we actually do begin.