Public Thinking about Democracy’s Challenge: Reclaiming the Public’s Role

Nov 20, 2006

Eleven representatives of organizations that study democracy and public deliberation came together to discuss America's olitical climate during a Roundtable at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on Monday, November 13.

The Roundtable centered on the findings of a new Kettering Foundation report, Public Thinking about Democracy's Challenge: Reclaiming the Public's Role. The report highlights the public's thinking when deliberating the importance of community life and civic skills, the role of religion and moral values in a democratic society, and barriers and opportunities for fuller citizen engagement in the political system.

The panel was moderated by Cole Campbell, Dean, Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. The panel included Bliss W. Browne, President, Imagine Chicago; Michael X. Delli Carpini, Dean, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania; Betty Sue Flowers, Director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum; Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Associate General Secretary for Justice & Advocacy, National Council of Churches; Richard C. Harwood, Founder and President, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation; Beverly W. Hogan, President, Tougaloo College; Betty Knighton, Director, West Virginia Center for Civic Life; David Mathews, President, Kettering Foundation; Charleta B. Tavares, Member, Columbus Ohio City Council, and Board Member, National League of Cities; and William F. Winter, former Governor of Mississippi.

The Roundtable was sponsored by the Kettering Foundation, the National Issues Forums Institute, the Office of Presidential Libraries at the National Archives and Records Administration, 12 Presidential Libraries, and Public Agenda.

More than 949 average Americans from more than 240 communities took part in National Issues Forums during 2005 and 2006 and deliberated over broad approaches to the problems facing the nation's democracy. Public Thinking about Democracy's Challenge describes and analyzes what participants said during these nonpartisan forums.

Here is a summary of the report: People felt alienated from politics and community affairs and powerless to do much about them.

Some felt that Americans have become consumers in the democratic process instead of citizen proprietors. They saw themselves as bystanders in democracy instead of active members who have a sense of ownership.

When they turned to the political system, participants threw up their hands in despair. Money talks, they asserted; the system responds to special interests, not the public interest; the average citizen has no voice and is unrepresented; and reform is a fantasy because those who should enact reform actually benefit from the status quo.

At the beginning of the forums, many felt the issue was beyond their control and was something they were powerless to affect. At the end of the forums, however, many saw new connections how community life relates to national affairs, how values of education tie into life, and how they both relate to what goes on in Washington.

The report is available at the Kettering Foundation, www.kettering.org.

A research organization, the Kettering Foundation (www.kettering.org) works on strategies to strengthen democracy. The primary focus of Kettering's research is "what does it take to make a democracy work as it should?".