Recently, I got an earful after writing a blog post that casually compared opposition to proposed bike-friendly changes along St. Paul’s Jefferson Avenue to the anti-government outrage on display at public town-hall meetings on health care.
My post provoked even more outrage from one resident who thought I’d ridiculed him and his neighbors and dismissed their concerns.
There’s been a lot of that going around lately, and I was sorry to add to the fire. I’d failed to follow one of my own principles: Listen to understand the other guy — not to refute him.
But I had also failed to make this point clearly: When you arrive at a meeting looking for a fight, you can’t expect to find a solution.
Although not as publicized as the fights, we’ve seen some examples in the past weeks of how airing our differences in public, face-to-face, can begin to rebuild the trust so necessary in a democratic system that relies on consent of the governed.
President Barack Obama staged a town-hall meeting on health care in my conservative Colorado hometown, where the county gave him only 34 percent of the vote in November.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., began a series of meetings in his District 7, not long after he took flak for saying he didn’t care for town halls because they were too often dominated by conspiracy theorists.
Both leaders showed a willingness to engage their critics — and their critics responded in a civil fashion.
In other cases, we’ve seen apparent gamesmanship. Who’s doing the gaming, however, is open to interpretation.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., District 1, reached out to the other side from another angle. He invited neighboring 2nd District U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican who favors more controlled roundtables and telephone town halls, to join him in co-hosting health care reform town halls in their respective districts. Walz’s staff reached Kline’s staff with a call and an emailed invitation Friday morning, but not Kline himself. When a press release and copy of the invitation went out that afternoon before Kline had responded, his office pronounced the offer a publicity stunt.
In Winona, state Sens. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, and Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, announced a “High-speed Rail Summit” to discuss building high-speed rail connecting Chicago and the Twin Cities. The invitees included Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken, MnDOT officials and local business leaders, but not the Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance, which includes the Mayo Clinic and other Rochester interests that have been pushing for the city to be considered a stop on a high-speed rail line.
Meanwhile, Gov. Pawlenty declined an invitation from DFL legislative leaders to attend a “Minnesota Leadership Summit” that would bring together a variety of expert perspectives to discuss how to deal with the state’s budget woes.
“The state already has an annual ‘Minnesota Leadership Summit,'” Pawlenty quipped. “It’s called the legislative session, and it lasts approximately five months.”
Unfortunately, the governor was often a no-show during the session, too.
Meetings part PR, part tone-setters
To be sure, town hall meetings and leadership summits are designed with public relations in mind. The listening that occurs is more about selling solutions than directly solving problems. But such meetings also set the tone for general discourse and signal how leaders intend to carry out their responsibilities on the public’s behalf.
The signals are decidedly mixed when some leaders say “Come, let us reason together” and others declare “I don’t trust you, so I’m not going to cooperate.”
Unfortunately, the best outcome we can expect from such a polarized approach is likely to be something between forced compromise and doing nothing. That’s just not good enough as we try to address complex, systemic issues such as health care, climate change and a healthy economy.
Principles for discourse
Maybe consensus problem-solving has become forever secondary to partisan point-scoring, but I’m trying to be optimistic here. In that spirit, I offer up some of the principles I try to follow in my own imperfect discourse. Leaders and citizens alike are encouraged to steal freely from this list:
1. Listen to understand instead of to refute. Try to grasp the deeper interests and concerns behind people’s perceptions rather than to label them or change their reality to match yours.
2. Ask about motivations, don’t ascribe them. Where facts are in dispute, don’t assume others are being deliberately dishonest. Look at the sources and discuss.
3. Speak to each other as individuals, from your own unique experience, rather than striking a pose as your side’s champion. Talk about perceptions, issues and solutions. Don’t become distracted by politics and personalities.
4. Don’t take the bait when others go ballistic. Demonstrate the values you believe are essential to the process, such as inclusiveness, tolerance, mutual understanding and respect.
5. Seek a higher common denominator. If Minnesotans can’t find any common ground to start from, we’re really in trouble.
No matter what issue we’re wrangling over, we have choices about how to act. We can bring together people with different perspectives to weigh fact-based analysis and seek workable solutions. Or we can pursue policy by placard — in which case I’m right and you are, at the very least, a dishonest idiot.
Charlie Quimby is a communications fellow at Growth & Justice, a think tank that focuses on policies that make Minnesota’s economy both more prosperous and fair. He tries hard to follow the principles mentioned above, though occasionally he violates them at his blog, Across the Great Divide.