From Edwards' campaign site:
In order to increase citizen engagement, Edwards will ask one million citizens to participate in biennial Citizen Congresses – national town hall meetings where regular Americans tackle national issues together, without the filters of interest groups and the media. Similar projects have given citizens a voice in community solutions across the country, including in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The organization with which I work, the Study Circles Resource Center (soon to be renamed Everyday Democracy), is one of many organizations involved in this new civic revival. Since the early 1990s, SCRC has helped hundreds of communities in nearly every state develop their own ability to organize large-scale and diverse participation in dialogue structured to support and strengthen measurable community change. It's exciting stuff because, through democratic deliberation, people are doing this work every day - not every other year.
We had our first live blog on SCRC’s new DemocracySpace.org this week, featuring Jim Noucas, the co-chair of Portsmouth Listens, the very program to which Edwards alluded today. This grassroots effort in Portsmouth has taken the traditional New England town meeting one giant step farther by using citizen engagement to write the city’s master plan, to resolve a local middle school location controversy, and to encourage sustainability in everything the city does. Portsmouth Listens has made it clear that it wants everyone to answer the question, “How can we make Porstmouth the best place for everyone?”
The beauty of study circles – the diverse conversations used in Portsmouth and many other towns and cities – is that people have a substantive say from the start in the policies that affect their lives. We’re all familiar with the typical, often fractious public hearings at which officials seek approval for decisions they’ve already made. People are usually ticked off at these meetings, and with good reason: They feel no one ever really cared what they had to say, even if the government made some cursory attempts to gauge their opinions. What’s more, scattershot, old-school citizen input methods regularly miss entire groups of people who – because of race, socio-economic level, or sheer busy-ness – don’t even hear that their opinions are “welcome.” At SCRC, we’ve learned that organizers must go out of their way to invite and involve the widest possible range of people to the table. We hope that Edwards has this in mind, too.
Jim Noucas mentioned at Thursday's live blog that when Portsmouth leaders embarked on writing a new strategic plan, they “agreed to try study circles but made it very clear to us that that was only going to be one part of the public input process. They were going to do public hearings and a big survey. They did public hearings and a survey, but I think it is fair to say that those means did not have anywhere near the impact that the study circles did.” Filling out a survey or sitting in a roomful of frustrated citizens is one thing, but – as former community organizer and current Edwards rival Barack Obama learned when he gathered Chicagoans to advocate for better housing and safer neighborhoods – nothing beats the everyday power of people working together to come up with solutions.
Could Edwards’ call for more public involvement produce similar results on a national level, giving Americans a sense that we once again run our government? The Gallup Poll found last month that trust in the federal government is lower than during Watergate. In March of this year, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that only one in three Americans believe that "most elected officials care what people like me think."
The blogosphere has gone a long way toward helping average Americans have a greater say, but much more can be done. Edwards’ call for a Citizens Congress is intriguing both because it speaks to a hunger that Americans feel to be more invested in our nation (beyond paying taxes!) and because it suggests that we could return as a nation to the genius envisioned by Abraham Lincoln of a nation governed “of the people, by the people, for the people.” As we move forward, it's worth looking at and learning from the local-level successes of recent years.
What do you think of Edwards’ idea? Would you be interested in serving in the Citizen Congress?
DemocracySpace is a nom de blog of Julie Fanselow, online organizer for the nonpartisan, nonprofit Study Circles Resource Center, soon to be renamed Everyday Democracy, and manager of its DemocracySpace.org blog. Fanselow has also blogged at Daily Kos under the screen name Red State Rebel.
Update: Here is a blog post from deliberative-democracy.net that offers more background on the idea of a Citizen Congress and how it might work. The author, Joe Goldman, is from AmericaSpeaks, which has experience in facilitating large-scale democratic deliberations including a gathering of 21,000 Northeast Ohio residents for a summit on revitalizing the region's economy.
Update: It was noted in the comments that Mike Gravel has a similar plan. Here's a link.
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