Democracy Relies on Healthy Dialogue

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Saturday, January 11, 2003
When I served in Congress and traveled through my Indiana district, I could always count on one thing: whatever the town, every morning I would find locals gathered at some coffee shop or cafe to discuss and resolve the great issues of state and nation. In a good-natured way, these citizen watchdogs would kid me that they could solve the country's problems better than Congress. 

That claim may or may not be true, but as I walked away from these enjoyable sessions I often thought to myself that the health of our democracy is sustained by these informal discussions among citizens. These sessions are replicated countless times across the country. At barber shops, grocery store aisles, the sidelines of kids' ball games, PTA meetings, and community and religious functions public issues come up in an almost offhand way, interwoven with social chatter. The participants may not always be aware that they are part of what Thomas Jefferson called the 'dialogue of democracy,' the perpetual exchange that keeps the United States strong and prosperous, and its people content and free. 

Fundamentally, democracy is a process of education; citizens discuss with one another and elected representatives what they think the government should do or not do on a host of difficult issues. Ours is a country of vast size and remarkable diversity of opinion. For all of us to live together peacefully and productively, we must embrace the notion that there be a process of discussion and education before an issue is resolved. This is an obligation of citizenship that is even more elemental than the act of voting. 

At the core of this deliberative process is a commitment to respectful listening and civil speech. We must listen with care, empathy, and discerning judgment. We must be inclusive in our dialogue, and seek out common interests and consensus. We must fight the demons of disinterest, cynicism and intolerance. 

When citizens listen to different viewpoints, they come to understand that politicians typically can't resolve difficult disputes quickly because there is much disagreement in the country about what the tough issues are, and how they should be resolved. An exchange of views enables a new understanding: people think beyond their own private interests, and are forced to think not just for themselves, but for the good of the community and the country. 

Our system of government was designed to encourage more talk than action. The complexity of the legislative process and the division of power among executive, legislative and judicial branches ensures that our government is not a model of efficiency or quick action. Our founding fathers slowed things down in order to afford all sides a chance to be heard so that unwise laws would not be enacted in the heat of the moment. Dialogue demonstrates to citizens that politics is not a bad thing. On the contrary, sifting through the various arguments and building a consensus around a solution to a problem requires skills of a high order. 

The dialogue of democracy does not always work. Empathy and civility are sometimes in short supply. For example, some pundits on television and radio set a bad example, spending most of their time firing off bursts of rhetoric. Sometimes the discussions produce heat, but not much light - an adversary will be attacked without an examination of the merits of their ideas. These discussions polarize ideas, and make consensus building hard to achieve. 

But despite its failings, the dialogue of democracy usually functions well, even in facing complex issues such as stem-cell research, telecommunications policy and international terrorism. Citizens may not be able to analyze every detail of an issue, but over time they show an uncanny ability to grasp the fundamentals of a subject, and they help steer the country to the proper conclusion. The American people have a great deal of common sense, an instinct for fairness, and a remarkable capacity for recognizing and rejecting bad ideas or thin arguments. 

There is a magic about democracy. Even when we fail to immediately resolve an issue through the democratic process, a healthy dialogue helps us live with disagreement and move on. Whenever I visited those conversations in an Indiana town, I left thinking that democracy is a process of mutual education and that the dialogue of democracy, when properly conducted, is the foundation of government of the people. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)