Four Ways To Fix Our Politics

It’s not just young revolutionary Bernie Sanders supporters or angry-as-hell Donald Trump fans who want to “change the system.” It’s also the President of the United States of America.

The future we want “will only happen if we fix our politics,” said President Barack Obama in his 2016 State of the Union address. “If we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a President. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves.”

But exactly how do we do that? The President did not say. And when William Jefferson Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000 expressed the same noble sentiment, they didn’t tell us how either.

Our last three presidents did not tell us because they don’t know. They are products of the system and clearly are not going to reform much less revolutionize it. They have risen to the top of the leadership pyramid by playing the partisan game. Them telling us how to work together would be like an alcoholic telling us how to get sober: he knows everything about the topic except doing it.

On both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans are recognizing that they are in a long-term political marriage that needs help. But even if both donkeys and elephants want to repair their broken relationship, they still need to learn how. The primary causes of dysfunction that Obama identified — the gerrymandering of congressional districts and the tyranny of money in campaigns — are certainly real. But these and other causes will never be effectively addressed unless we stop restating the problem and start focusing on the solutions.

The good news is that we not only can bridge this political divide; in fact, we already are.

I have recently interviewed and profiled dozens of Americans who know how to solve problems across the divide. They are doing so in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill; in living rooms and town halls; between corporations and anti-corporate activists; with police departments and minority communities; and in almost every sector of our society. When diverse groups connect in constructive dialogue, they make progress on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to internet privacy to education reform

Literally dozens of major initiatives have had concrete successes bringing Left and Right together to break down the partisan wall and find common ground. They have succeeded where Capitol Hill has failed. This movement to reunite America is gaining momentum because it starts with four fundamental shifts that are a vital part of fixing our politics.

From Confirming to Learning.  Anyone who thinks that political leadership means thinking that whatever we believe is automatically right — and anyone who disagrees with us is wrong — is not part of the solution. Simply confirming what one already knows is not leadership; it is an addiction to being right. The movement to reunite America is redefining leadership to be about learning rather than about being know-it-alls. (Check out Public Conversations Project, Everyday Democracy or Citizen University as examples of this shift.)

From Control to Relationship. Particularly during elections, winning seems to be everything. “Controlling” the Congress and the White House appears to be the goal. But on the day after the election, whoever won or lost must forge a relationship with the opposition. Making relationships across the divide strong and healthy is today the key to accomplishing anything that endures. (Learn more from Living Room Conversations or the 2000-member National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation).

From Position-Taking to Problem-Solving. America has a surplus of leaders with rigid positions and a deficit of leaders who solve problems. It’s time to reverse that imbalance. Across the country, a host of problem-solving organizations are gaining ground. (Examples include No Labels in Washington, D.C. to Future 500 in San Francisco, from the Village Square in Tallahassee to the American Public Square in Kansas City.

From Endless Campaigning to Effective Governance. The line between campaigning and governing used to be clear. Campaigns were brief preludes before Election Day, not never-ending tit-for-tat attacks that became a permanent part of civic life. But today campaigning is benefiting from unprecedented levels of investment, and governing is being paralyzed. Fortunately, from the offices of city mayors to state-level initiatives and even on the edges of Capitol Hill, red-blue coalitions are finding common ground on a wide range of policy issues ranging from criminal justice reform to education to defense spending. (The National Institute of Civil Discourse’s “Next Generation” project, for example, has convened across-the-aisle collaboration in scores of state legislatures.)

So we Americans do know how to work together. But we have to get past the soaring rhetoric from the Right and the Left about how they alone can “save America.” We have to get down to the real business of learning and applying boundary-crossing skills. If we actually want a “system that reflects our better selves,” Let’s start with what works. Let’s take to scale the scores of projects where that is already happening.

Mark Gerzon, President of Mediators Foundation, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Cross the Partisan Divide.

            

 

How you can bring more truth to campaigns – and government

Gary Cameron/Reuter

Gary Cameron/Reuter

Now that Donald Trump has called Hillary Clinton a “world-class liar,” and a Boston Globe columnist has labeled Trump “a liar – plain and simple,” the long-avoided L-word is clearly in vogue. Gone are the days when politicians politely criticized their colleagues for being “mistaken” or having “misspoken.” Now it’s straight-out deceit.

The voters have noticed and are clearly disgusted. It’s exhausting trying to sort out “what’s fluff, what’s been engineered, and what’s actually true,” one middle-aged Kentucky man admitted in a poll conducted by the Associated Press. Echoed another voter, a woman in Arkansas: “You’ve got to wade through so much muck to find the truth.”    

Instead of complaining, however, we have another much more empowering alternative: using our freedoms to search out the truth. Howard Thurman, the powerful African-American theologian and civil rights leader, called it “the sound of the genuine.” When we hear it, our skin tingles. We may shed a tear, or find ourselves cheering.  

Since fact-twisting seems to be overtaking fact-finding, don’t we, the people, need to ask ourselves some tough questions? Are we, the people, suffering from some kind of truth allergy? Are many of us so afraid of learning what is actually happening that we would rather hear half-truths than the straight scoop?  

To avoid the truth, we now collude in a practice that has become so common that we have a new word for it: spin. Eager to get (re)elected, politicians don’t want to disturb us with the truth, so they sugar-coat or otherwise distort it. Meanwhile, not wanting to be distracted from our busy lives, we reward politicians who tell us what we want to hear rather than what is actually happening.

Exposing and combating this “truth phobia” will not start with the candidates. It has to start with us, the voters. So after doing some homework, let’s take action.

• Let’s educate ourselves. Learn hot to identify spin and ignore it. “ ‘Spin’ is a polite word for deception,” writes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a leading expert on political communication in the book which she co-authored with Brooks Jackson entitled “unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation.” “Both sides actively work to deceive the public.” Like a pitcher’s curveball, the words we hear coming out of candidates’ mouths are not coming at us straight. They are loaded with spin in order to change direction suddenly in mid air. It’s designed to fool us.

• Get the facts. Ms. Jamieson and her colleagues at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania founded FactCheck.org, which strives to be a “consumer advocate” for voters and is particularly active during election cycles. to determine what is true, half-true, and plain old falsehood. Another source for truth-telling and lie-detecting, also designed by journalists, is PolitiFact, which was developed by the Tampa Bay Times. It actually rates the accuracy of statements by elected officials and pundits.  

• Support fact-based efforts it Washington. In March 2016, Congress passed, and the president signed into law, a bill establishing the Evidence-Based Policy Commission. The commission would actually collect from all government agencies so that our lawmakers would have accurate facts and figures on which to base their decisions. It sounds remarkably elemental, but the truth is that all too often policies are made based on faulty, out-of-date or incomplete information.

• Take a fact-based approach to controversial issues. While politicians and citizens argue about gun rights vs. gun control, for example, do we even know the facts? Do we know how many people own guns or how many are stolen? Do we know whether background checks actually reduce gun violence? Do we know what programs work – and why? As the Urban Institute has pointed out, we are still missing this kind of crucial information. How can we make sound gun policy decisions when we’re shooting in the dark?  

To overcome our aversion to truth, it’s time to improve our civic listening skills so that we actually recognize the “sound of the genuine” when we it spoken. Thurman believed that every human being “waits and listens” for it. And he warned us: “If you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”

Ultimately, that is the question each of us must answer. Will we be averse to hearing hard truths – or listen deeply for the “the sound of the genuine?” Will we be puppets – or citizens?

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of "The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide."

Originally posted on Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/Politics-Voices/2016/0705/How-you-can-bring-more-truth-to-campaigns-and-government

Asking tough questions of ourselves after Orlando​

If America is going to be safer tomorrow than it is today, ego-driven partisanship must give way to a problem-solving patriotism from both the left and the right. 

By  Mark Gerzon, Voices contributor  JUNE 14, 2016

Mary Altaffer/AP

I don’t know what makes me angrier: the man or the gun.

Why does the choice matter? Because lives may depend on where we focus our attention.

Following the massacre of 49 people in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub on Sunday, we are witnessing once again the same national schizophrenia that has followed every mass shooting from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., to the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif. Half the country wants to talk about the gunman and why he did it. The other half wants to talk about the AR-15 assault rifle he used. 

Like abortion and other hot-button issues, we seem incapable of seeing the whole issue, viewing it instead through our own narrow, often partisan, lenses.  

As I travel across the country to speak about how we can bridge the partisan divide, I have observed that the impulse to increase security is often overshadowed by the even stronger desire to be right. Many of us actually seem more committed to our point of view about terrorism, gun violence, and other related issues than we are to actually solving the problems.

I first studied this paradox following the mass shooting of kindergartners in Newtown. When grief for the 20 murdered children was still fresh, I thought we would experience a breakthrough in the stalemated gun debate. If killing 20 innocent children and six school staff members didn’t break through our ideological “twin spin” machines, I figured, nothing would.

Instead, the same old “pro” and “anti” voices were soon pitted against each other. On one side, there were those who felt that the massacre of innocent 6-year-olds proved once and for all the need for stricter gun control. On the other side, there were those who considered it proof positive that we needed more guns throughout our society, including elementary schools.

Not long ago, I remembered the faces of these children when I was a guest on a radio show, discussing how to cross the partisan divide. Two residents from the New York City area had called into the program: Carol, an ardent gun control advocate, and Stu, an equally passionate gun rights activist.

“So, Mark," the host Brian Lehrer said, “show us what you do.”

Knowing I had limited time, I momentarily froze. After all, how does one mediate a conversation on gun control in less than 20 minutes? Carol and Stu sounded like they had just emerged from central casting as polar opposites. Carol wanted all guns to disappear somehow from America, and spoke wistfully of how safe Scandinavian countries were with their record-low gun deaths. By contrast, Stu was convinced the government was trying to take people’s guns away, and was utterly convinced that more guns equaled more safety.

Listening to them, I knew that what they shared was fear. Like a growing number of Americans, fear has saturated the social fabric. Twenty years ago, most gun owners said they had firearms because they hunted. But today, according to Pew Research, the vast majority profess self-protection as the main reason they want guns in their possession.

“Stu and Carol, let me ask you both to imagine something,” I said, finally finding my voice. “Please imagine that you lived in the same neighborhood. Your children go to the same elementary school. Just like the parents in Newtown in 2012, you are preparing to send your kids to school tomorrow.”

I paused for a moment to let the scene take hold before continuing.

“So here’s my question to both of you: Are you willing to work together to make your kids' school safer? Do you care enough about them to put them first, and your opinions second?”

Before they could reply, I briefly explained that, if they each held on to their existing partisan positions, their children would be just as endangered as they were before Sandy Hook. If Carol had her way, mentally ill mass murderers could still get a gun illegally and attack defenseless elementary schools anywhere in America. On the other hand, if America followed Stu’s lead, every principal, teacher, and school bus driver in America would have a gun on his or her hip, and accidental shootings would skyrocket.

“Are you willing to sit down and take some steps,” I asked them, “to make your kids' school safer tomorrow than it is today?”   

But neither of them budged. They did not have the courage to imagine taking responsibility for an actual school. Instead, they blithely restated their formulaic conservative and liberal “solutions.”

By contrast, the state of Connecticut, which does have actual responsibility for making schools safer, formed a Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety to develop practical proposals. They began working through the tough choices that communities must make. Unlike Stu and Carol, who were responsible only to themselves, the Task Force is responsible for schools throughout the state. So they have begun the real work of citizenship — not arrogantly confirming what they already believe, but humbly going far beyond the blue-and-red half-truths to seek deeper, sustainable solutions.

As conservative Forbes columnist Ralph Benko points out, the first four words of the Second Amendment refers to a “well-regulated militia.” It is members of that citizens’ militia who have the right to bear arms, not any disturbed young man with a credit card who knows how to order online. So why not require gun owners to be part of a National Guard unit? Mr. Benko asks. Or why not require a license, registration and passing a test similar to what is required of all drivers? And, finally, does an amendment that referred to muskets (which fire two to three rounds per minute) confer the right to bear an AR-15 assault rifle (which fires 700 rounds per minute)?

If any place in America is going to be safer tomorrow than it is today, we will have to begin considering unorthodox, transpartisan ideas. We will need to reject ego-driven partisanship and instead embrace a problem-solving patriotism that seeks synergy between the best ideas of the left and the right. Otherwise, we will be stuck right where we are.

So if we really want a safer America, let’s make our country safe for collaboration. As Jim Turner puts it in his book "Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life," “Walking is not a compromise between the left leg and the right leg. It is what makes forward motion possible.” 

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of "The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide."

Originally posted on Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/Politics-Voices/2016/0614/Asking-tough-questions-of-ourselves-after-Orlando

Democrat or Republican? More Millennials choose 'none of the above.'

There are clear signs now that the new generation of voters are not allowing themselves to be cannibalized by polarized voices on the left and right.

By   Mark Gerzon, Voices contributor   JUNE 1, 2016

AP Photo/John Amis/File

With a nation paralyzed by intense hostility between two major parties, Democratic and Republican, why are there only Democratic and Republican clubs on most campuses? Does it make sense to replicate the problem? How can the next generation free themselves from the same two gridlocked alternatives?

The good news is: Millennials are making other choices. They are rising up and declaring their freedom from their parents’ partisanship. There are clear signs now that the new generation of voters are not allowing themselves to be cannibalized by polarized voices on the left and right. On campus and off, they are refusing to be inducted into the current dysfunction designed by their elders. Instead, they are fulfilling Thomas Jefferson’s original vision of democracy that is that it will be renewed by every generation.  

“Multiplicity in choice is what the Millennials have grown up with,” says Jon Avlon, editor-in-chief of the online news source The Daily Beast, highly favored by the millennial generation. “They don’t have to buy the album; just have to buy the song. That’s what they are used to.”  

“Our generation is just less willing to line up with whatever party platform they lean toward,” says Erik Fogg, the co-author of Wedged, a compelling Millennial manifesto. “Instead, we’re having these very real, intense conversations about policy, economics, justice. We’ve been ignored by the parties for so long that we're just forging our own way now. There's a growing sense that we’re part of a civic Silicon Valley for renewing politics.”

No one is more wire to this “civic Silicon Valley” than the generation now on campus.BridgeUSA is an organization founded by, for and of Millennials that is working to bridge the gap between the current polarizing student groups. Less than a year old, this group is already gaining traction from college students who want other options besides donkey and elephant. The organization hopes to have 30 chapters running on college campuses by the time of the election in November.  

“BridgeUSA gives students a safe learning environment to talk through divisive issues,” says Courtlyn Carpenter, a junior at the University of Colorado, and one of the co-founders of this organization. “Even more important, it helps us develop communication skills and methods for finding shared values that will enable us to be political change-makers in the future.”

Tired of partisan stalemate, turned on by technological innovation, the Millennials, and the generations that will follow in their footsteps, are emerging as an instinctively “transpartisan” political and cultural force. Poisonous partisanship and has been going on so long that the younger generation has seen nothing but political dysfunction. For this reason, they tend to see more quickly than many of their elders why being hyperpartisan is a dead-end. The Millennial generation is less enamored of political parties than any generation before them. Culturally as well as politically, their generation is saying a powerful “no” to political boxes.

Millennials can tell that, although both the Democratic and Republican parties are courting their votes, neither of them is taking the emerging generation seriously. Faced with a contracting economy with limited job opportunities, they are nevertheless saddled with more than $2 trillion in student loans. Their inheritance is being squandered by the two political parties’ focus on short-term partisan advantage, not long-term fiscal health.   

Beyond the campus, score of emerging initiatives are working to put this transpartisan, “Country Before Party” narrative into action.

  • Millennial Action Projectis harnessing the energy of the new generation in Congress.  
  • Action for America  will convene the New American Congress, bringing together Millennials from every state, possibly every Congressional district later this year.
  • Run for America is actually running candidates who will, if successful,  bring a fresh, entrepreneurial, pragmatic energy to local races across the country.
  • Something to Consider is building a “new political community” of independent-minded young voters to raise the level of political dialogue, re-engage the middle-ground and build a movement based on “shared values and mutual understanding.”
  • Change.org is providing a platform that takes “civic tech” to a new level and provides the cyber-savvy generation with a stronger voice and wider set of choices about how to engage as citizens.

“We have the greatest potential political power,” says David Burstein, founder of Run for America, “but we also have the most to lose. While the rest of the country has been galvanized by partisanship, our generation needs to be galvanized by our desire for solutions. Our collective voices can disrupt and change our failing system – and we can’t allow this opportunity to pass us by.”

Bob Dylan’s words are as true today as they were in the '60s: “The times, they are a-changin.’ ” And the leaders of this Millennial-powered movement are providing the paths forward to a Technicolor America that transcends red and blue.

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of “The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.”

Originally posted on Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/Politics-Voices/2016/0601/Democrat-or-Republican-More-Millennials-choose-none-of-the-above.

Turning political noise into do-it-yourself Democracy

This presidential election, we're bound to hear a lot of things designed solely to win an election. But there are other voices to listen to.

By   Mark Gerzon, Voices contributor   MAY 25, 2016

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

When we wake up on Nov. 9, we will face the reality behind this crazy election year. 

After working for years with members of the United States House of Representatives, I know there are good people on both sides of the aisle. But for that basic American goodness to shine, we need to stop keeping score of who won or lost, but focus on the health of our democracy. 

Nothing illustrates the hollowness of our politics more clearly than the speeches we are likely to hear at the party conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia. Despite the differences in political philosophy, both presidential nominees will give speeches that are largely predictable.

“I am right, my opponent wrong.”

“I almost never make mistakes; he/she makes nothing but mistakes.”

“I protect America; he/she endangers it.”

“I strengthen America’s economy; he/she weakens it.”

“I am strong and have courage; he/she is weak and will be pushed around.” 

“You can trust me, but not him/her.”

“I tell the truth, but he/she is a liar.”

“Elect me, and our greatest days are ahead of us; elect my opponent, disaster will soon follow.”

Election after election, this is the repetitive refrain. And so, on the day after the election, gridlock is likely to continue – and perhaps even worsen.

Unfortunately, this is not a Broadway audition. This is the process by which our country makes decisions about its future: about where our sons and daughters are sent to war, who gets health care and who doesn’t, and what quality of education our children will receive.

Instead of using our differences to truly listen and learn from each other, we are letting our differences divide and polarize us. Instead of a thoughtful, innovative, catalytic debate about issues like terrorism, for example, we are playing political games. We are mortgaging our future to inter-party warfare.

Rather than being manipulated by politicians into polarized armies, let’s choose to learn from each other. Despite politicians’ claims in every election cycle that they will be “uniters, not dividers,” they have rigged the system against problem-solving – and we have been their enablers. So whatever issue most concerns us, whether it’s the economy or national security, it’s time to reach out across the divide ourselves.

A one-stop shop for “do it yourself democracy” is the Bridge Alliance. You will find a range of more than 40 organizations that allow each of us, as concerned citizens, to find our own way of building bridges. On Capitol Hill, NoLabels is working to forge a cross-party caucus that is challenging members of Congress to work together in the national interest.

So we don’t have to wait until Election Day to have our say. We can get involved right now in reuniting America. We can show the candidates, both national and local, that we are not waiting for them to find the courage to reach out to their adversary. We can do it ourselves.  

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of "The Reunited States of America; How We Can Cross the Partisan Divide."

Originally posted on Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/Politics-Voices/2016/0525/Turning-political-noise-into-do-it-yourself-Democracy

Breaking out of this election's partisan prison

Media and politics want us to see the other side as the enemy, as this election is showing. But that's not necessary or even helpful. 

By   Mark Gerzon, Voices contributor   MAY 17, 2016

What did the Founding Fathers’ say about corporate money in politics? What was their position on Internet privacy, GMOs, international terrorism, climate change or on outsourcing jobs to China?

They had no position on these – or countless other policy issues – because they lived more than two centuries ago, of course. But they were wise enough to know that citizens of a democracy would have to learn. That is why Thomas Jefferson and the other founders believed so deeply in public education: Education was the only way democracy could renew itself in every generation. “None but ourselves can free our minds,” sang Bob Marley, echoing Thomas Jefferson in his own inimitable way.

The problem is: the multibillion dollar avalanche of attack ads that threatens to bury us during this election year is not designed to fulfill Jefferson’s vision. They are not broadcast in order to educate or empower us. On the contrary, they are designed to manipulate us. Their purpose is to make us angry and afraid so that we will take the “side” the ad creators want us to take.

Fortunately, we are free. We don’t have to barricade ourselves inside a prison of prefabricated liberal or conservative “positions.” We aren’t limited to TV channels and websites that confirm whatever we happen to believe. Fortunately, we are at liberty to read any magazine or newspaper, watch any channel, engage through any social media platform and talk with a wide variety of people. All it takes is a commitment to learn. And the place where that commitment is born is in our public schools.

The report of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools, co-chaired by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and US Rep. Lee Hamilton, titled Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, explains why our most precious energy resource in America is not the coal in West Virginia, the natural gas in the Midwest, or the oil off the Gulf Coast or in Alaska. It is the civic energy of the American people. If we do not nurture and develop that energy source, the lights may stay on in America, but there will be no one home.

“We hope to give young people a deeper understanding of their responsibility as citizens,” says Mabel McKinney-Browning, one of the key leaders of the campaign. “Civic education at its best gives young people a sense that they can have an impact on their leaders and also make them more satisfied with their lives.”

In college, students have even more power to get out of the jail of political uniformity. Away from home and surrounded by campus full of possibilities, all that is required is a personal commitment to adopt a diverse media diet. Today being on a predominantly “liberal” or “conservative” campus is no excuse. Any student can go to a wide variety of websites, such as Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy. This website is a well-designed antidote to many college campuses, which tilt heavily liberal or conservative. Anyone who visits this cyber-campus will be assured of a wide range of scholarly perspectives.

Today, with a click on our computer, we can receive the news every day free of charge from multiple perspectives. Smart media choices can help us to strengthen our civic muscles and form a learner’s mind.   

In the 1980s, a high-tech whiz kid named John Gable realized that instead of freeing us to think for ourselves, the Internet was trapping us in ghettos of groupthink. “In the last 10 to 15 years, the Internet overwhelmed us with noise,” Mr. Gable says. “So we pushed back. We created a ‘bias bubble’ around ourselves: We do everything we can to filter out people and ideas that challenge us and only let in what we already agree with. We begin to believe that people who disagree with us are either ignorant – or evil.”

So Gable created a startup company called Allsides.com, which he now serves as CEO. He designed Allsides.com to “burst the bias bubble,” as he puts it. It presents the news from multiple perspectives – left, right, and center – so that looking through different lenses become a natural part of our daily lives. “We created the political divides,” he argues, “and we can bridge them. We can use media to give multiple views of today’s news and issues, providing new avenues and tools for civil dialogue.”

His dream: to nurture a generation of American citizens who understand multiple perspectives and are able to think for themselves.

What difference might a civically literate generation make? Just listen to Ms. McKinney-Browning, the African American director of the American Bar Association’s Division of Public Education. In the wake of mounting outrage about the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers, she recalls how vibrant civic education programs a generation ago brought police officers into high school classrooms:

“It gave the police officers an opportunity to engage with students and recognize students as individuals. It also allowed the students to understand the decision-making process of the police officers as well as the law. Research showed that it improved communication and helped bridge the gap and build a more positive environment between police and young people.”

If we want a vibrant democracy, it is time to listen to these pioneers of civic education. From the classroom to the newsroom, the message is clear. We, the people, are more than voters. We are also learners.

Ultimately, that is how we “make America great again” — not by pretending that we know it all, but by asking tough questions and discovering the answers together.

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of "The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide"

Originally posted on Christian Science Monitor: 

http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/Politics-Voices/2016/0517/Breaking-out-of-this-election-s-partisan-prison

The good kind of political money

There are two kinds of political money: the kinds that builds walls around us and the kind that build bridges between us. 

By   Mark Gerzon, Voices contributor   MAY 6, 2016

Now that Jane Mayer has chronicled how the Koch brothers’ empire has funded the extreme right, we know in excruciating detail how dollars can hide in the extremist shadows. Although her powerful, almost-400 page book "Dark Money" brilliantly chronicles the poisonous impact of dark money on the conservative movement, it says nothing about the toxic impact of money on the left. And it teaches us precious little about the antidote to the poison.

But let’s resist the immediate temptation to call the antidote “light money.” It also obscures the deeper difference between the two. The contrast between the poison and the antidote is more than the contrast between secrecy (“dark”) and transparency (“light”). To evoke the contrast more fully, a better designation may be “wall money” vs. “bridge money.”

Wall money is:

  • hard to trace to its source (camouflaged)
  • centralized in the hands of the very wealthy (elitist)
  • associated with political ideas on the fringes (extremist); and
  • designed to polarize one “side” against another (divisive).

In other words, wall money is about using vast amounts of money to amplify the voices of a few at the expense of the voices of the many.

One can recognize wall money immediately because of its signature quality: It is designed to raise barriers between “them” and “us” even higher than they are already. It is more aboutagainst than it is about for. It is against an enemy, and that enemy is often otherAmericans who hold different points of view. The other may be racial or religious, or it may ideological. But it always has an edge of hostility. The wall is about keeping the “good guys” separate and protected from the “bad guys.” And the worse the “bad guys” are portrayed, the higher the wall must be raised.

Conversely, the opposite is “bridge money.” It is recognizable because it is:

  • easy to identify and connect to its source (transparent);
  • drawn from numerous and more diverse contributors (populist);
  • based on core values of American culture (mainstream); and
  • designed to bring many “sides” together to solve problems (unifying).

In other words, bridge money is about using money from many pockets to give everyone a voice so that sustainable solutions can be found to the challenges our country faces.

Today bridge money is both harder to recognize and harder to find. First of all, there is a lot less of it. As America polarized, so did the money.  While the amount of money on the left and the right has skyrocketed, the resources for the “problem-solving” sector where citizens work together across the divide has not grown at all. In fact, some of the foundations that once provided grants to these “bridge-building” initiatives have pulled out of this vitally important arena. While candidates in national races are now throwing around a total of more than $2 billion, this “problem-solving” sector of the political spectrum is being starved.

In addition to being scarcer, bridge money is also harder to identify. By its very nature, bridge projects have a very different profile than the hyper-partisan flame-throwers. Bridge-builders have to be as humble and respectful as the wall-builders are arrogant and rude. When they bring many “sides” together and successfully find common ground, they cannot take credit. In fact, those who convene some of the most successful cross-spectrum initiatives never claim the spotlight but let others take credit.  

Because of media bias, the impact of bridge money often goes unreported. Since bridge-builders don’t get the ratings that the wall-builders do, the media does not cover their activities. So even when they do good work, we, the people, never learn about them. The bridge-builders remain invisible – hidden behind the partisan fireworks.

What America needs are citizens who commit their resources to thoughtful problem-solving rather than cocky position-taking. Instead of spending, as a nation, tens of billions of dollars disuniting America, those of us who have contributed to politicians to wage war against each other now need to reconsider our priorities.   We need to shift our focus away from electoral fistfights and toward the renewal of democracy.  

There is obviously no “magic pill” to clean up the campaign finance mess. But today there are a wide range of solutions-oriented initiatives from which concerned citizens can select. For a broad range of liberal-leaning approaches to the problem, there is no better place to start than theexcellent list of organizations outlined by Issue One. And if you want a more conservative-oriented organization that also recognizes the urgency of this threat to our democracy, check out Take Back Our Republic.

With all these options before us, let’s not just throw our precious dollars to the Democratic and Republican parties.It’s time to fund the solution, not just the problem. Before we make a political donation, let’s ask ourselves: What will benefit us more – higher walls or stronger bridges?

May our answer to that question guide how we invest our money, our attention, and, of course, our vote.

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of "The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide"

Originally posted on Christian Science Monitor:

http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/Politics-Voices/2016/0506/The-good-kind-of-political-money

Four ways to fix American politics

The roots of gridlock will never be addressed until we stop restating the problem and start focusing on the solutions. The good news is that we not only can bridge this political divide; we already are.

By  Mark Gerzon, Voices contributor APRIL 25, 2016

It’s not just young revolutionary Bernie Sanders supporters or angry-as-hell Donald Trump fans who want to “change the system.” It’s also the president of the United States of America.

The future we want “will only happen if we fix our politics,” said President Obama in his 2016 State of the Union address. “If we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a president. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves.”

But exactly how do we do that? The president did not say. And when William Jefferson Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000 expressed the same noble sentiment, they didn’t tell us how either.

Our last three presidents did not tell us because they don’t know. They are products of the system and clearly are not going to reform much less revolutionize it. They have risen to the top of the leadership pyramid by playing the partisan game. Them telling us how to work together would be like an alcoholic telling us how to get sober: He knows everything about the topic except doing it.

The good news is that we not only can bridge this political divide; in fact, we already are.On both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans are recognizing that they are in a long-term political marriage that needs help. But even if both donkeys and elephants want to repair their broken relationship, they still need to learn how. The primary causes of dysfunction that Obama identified — the gerrymandering of congressional districts and the tyranny of money in campaigns — are certainly real. But these and other causes will never be effectively addressed unless we stop restating the problem and start focusing on the solutions.

I have recently interviewed and profiled dozens of Americans who know how to solve problems across the divide. They are doing so in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill; in living rooms and town halls; between corporations and anti-corporate activists; with police departments and minority communities; and in almost every sector of our society. When diverse groups connect in constructive dialogue, they make progress on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to internet privacy to education reform

Literally dozens of major initiatives have had concrete successes bringing Left and Right together to break down the partisan wall and find common ground. They have succeeded where Capitol Hill has failed. This movement to reunite America is gaining momentum because it starts with four fundamental shifts that are a vital part of fixing our politics.

From Confirming to Learning. Anyone who thinks that political leadership means thinking that whatever we believe is automatically right — and anyone who disagrees with us is wrong — is not part of the solution. Simply confirming what one already knows is not leadership; it is an addiction to being right. The movement to reunite America is redefining leadership to be about learning rather than about being know-it-alls. (Check out Public Conversations ProjectEveryday Democracy or Citizen University as examples of this shift.)

From Control to Relationship. Particularly during elections, winning seems to be everything. “Controlling” the Congress and the White House appears to be the goal. But on the day after the election, whoever won or lost must forge a relationship with the opposition. Making relationships across the divide strong and healthy is today the key to accomplishing anything that endures. (Learn more from Living Room Conversations or the 2000-member National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation).

From Position-Taking to Problem-Solving. America has a surplus of leaders with rigid positions and a deficit of leaders who solve problems. It’s time to reverse that imbalance. Across the country, a host of problem-solving organizations are gaining ground. (Examples include No Labels in Washington, D.C., to Future 500 in San Francisco, from the Village Squarein Tallahassee to the American Public Square in Kansas City.

From Endless Campaigning to Effective Governance. The line between campaigning and governing used to be clear. Campaigns were brief preludes before Election Day, not never-ending tit-for-tat attacks that became a permanent part of civic life. But today campaigning is benefiting from unprecedented levels of investment, and governing is being paralyzed. Fortunately, from the offices of city mayors to state-level initiatives and even on the edges of Capitol Hill, red-blue coalitions are finding common ground on a wide range of policy issues ranging from criminal justice reform to education to defense spending. (The National Institute of Civil Discourse’s “Next Generation” project, for example, has convened across-the-aisle collaboration in scores of state legislatures.)

So we Americans do know how to work together. But we have to get past the soaring rhetoric from the right and the left about how they alone can “save America.” We have to get down to the real business of learning and applying boundary-crossing skills. If we actually want a “system that reflects our better selves,” let’s start with what works. Let’s take to scale the scores of projects where that is already happening.

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of “The Reunited States of America: How We Can Cross the Partisan Divide.”

Originally posted on Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/Politics-Voices/2016/0425/Four-ways-to-fix-American-politics

A Movie Warning to American Voters

In the hit movie Captain America: Civil War, no spoiler alert is required. The title alone tells the story line: the Avengers are bitterly divided. Instead of fighting together against the forces of terror that have been let loose in the world, they are fighting each other. Instead of combating the growing evil that threatens America, they are destroying themselves.

“It’s just a story,” Hollywood insiders are fond of saying. But is it?

Like the superheroes in the movie, each candidate claims that he or she will save us from the scourge of ISIS. They each argue passionately that they are The One who will arrive on their white horse and protect the homeland. They argue that they know best, then bludgeon each other, desperately trying to destroy their rivals in the name of safety and freedom. But as every military strategist since Sun Tzu knows, they are missing the crucial element in self-defense. They are forgetting the adage: “Divided we fall, united we stand.”

Clearly neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton will solve the deeper problem that America is divided against itself. Like Captain America (played by Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Clinton and Trump are leading rival factions that want to save America. But as we prepare to witness internecine warfare for the remainder of 2016, and possibly beyond, we are failing to focus effectively on the “bad guys” (to use Donald Trump’s favorite catch-all phrase). Instead of developing a clear long-term national security strategy that our allies can join, we are in danger of ricocheting like a pinball between invasion and retreat — and back again.

For a brief shining moment, following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, it seemed that a common enemy might bring us together. Instead, we have managed to become even more divided.

  • Within days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, attention shifted from homeless people and submerged neighborhoods to attacking President George W. Bush for being an incompetent and uncaring crisis manager.  
  • While the economy eventually recovered from the 2008 financial crisis in 2008, charges and countercharges continue to be hurled, with each party blaming the other for causing the economic calamity.
  • With delicate nuclear negotiations between the USA and Iran underway in early 2015, the spectacle of American foreign policy in hyper-partisan disarray undermined our nation’s authority and credibility.
  • More recently, presidential candidates bitterly accused each other of taking the nation into unnecessary wars and impugned the judgment — and sometimes the character — of both President Bush and President Obama.

Today we Americans can’t summon enough political will to build a major airport or fix our bridges. We can’t pass health care reform without a rebellion on Capitol Hill. We can’t negotiate a federal budget without the threat of government shutdowns. We can’t even mount a defense against the Zika-virus mosquito without political bickering. Like the superheroes on the screen, our enemies are exploiting our weakness. In fact, we become our own worst enemy.

Terrorists know that, for the remainder of this year, and perhaps longer, this geopolitical superpower — like the cinematic superheroes— will be in a political battle with itself. ISIS leaders do not have to be political scientists or experts in American culture to know that it will be hard, if not impossible, for this country’s leadership to take effective action against a foreign enemy.  

The greatest military power on earth obviously has the capability of containing and ultimately eliminating a small, poorly organized caliphate of young hoodlums masquerading as devout Muslims. But that is true only if we are united. We have the proven skills and tools for having a national conversation and for reaching common ground. But we need to use them — and soon. 

Of course fierce disagreement is a vital part of being a democracy. But so is collaborative decision-making. When an issue is a matter of life and death, can we raise the level of our political discourse and actually dialogue, deliberate and reach a coherent and sustainable decision? When our security depends on it, can we finally put country before party?

The moral of the movie could not be clearer. A bruising battle between Clinton and Trump, followed by another era of divided government, will not make us safer. Only a reunited America will.

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation and a former screenwriter, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.