Thursday, December 22, 2005

John Hart, American Democracy Institute

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

We talk about focusing on what’s right, and not who’s right. I think that resonates strongly with people who are interested in having a really good discussion about ideas and how they apply to contemporary issues.

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Has the level of politics sunk so low -- and the influence of mainstream media that focuses on sensationalist stories and stenography journalism reached such a zenith -- that we need to relearn how to engage in civil discourse?  

John Hart, a former top official in the Clinton Administration and former Director of Policy Implementation for the James B. Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of North Carolina, thinks so. That is why he started the American Democracy Institute (ADI) in Washington, D.C. A key goal of the ADI is "improving American democracy through increased citizen participation, deeper understanding of the issues affecting public life, and greater civility in our public affairs."   To accomplish this, they are engaging in leadership development, first focusing on younger people.  BuzzFlash was invited to be on a panel at the ADI's kick-off series of regional conferences, the first one being held in Chicago on December 3.  More than 4000 young Americans turned out to hear a variety of activists and elected officials urge them to become a part of the dialogue of democracy. 

BuzzFlash was so impressed with the program and the professionalism of the organization that we decided to interview John Hart. He offers an excellent example of the new pro-democracy initiatives that are sprouting up with greater frequency.

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BuzzFlash: There have been a lot of new (c)(3) organizations developing recently among those of us interested in promoting progressive issues and democracy. How does the American Democracy Institute fit in with the landscape of other (c)(3) organizations such as the Center for American Progress and the New American Foundation and so forth?

John Hart: I think it reflects a growing sense and desire to level the playing field. American Democracy Institute (ADI) is an organization that wants to develop ideas and develop people who can participate in the public square and promote healthy democracy. We look at the public square, the place where decisions are made as a society on issues, and at how that is reflected in the last budgets and policies. It’s necessary in a vital and healthy democracy to have all different views introduced into that public square. ADI’s interest is in seeing democracy strengthened.

BuzzFlash: Many people would say, isn’t that what newspapers were supposed to be doing, and later, television and radio? You have Letters to the Editor. You have op ed pages. The newspaper was or should be the town’s square for discourse on public policy. Has something changed in the last fifty or hundred years?

John Hart: I think the very definition of civic duty and civic engagement is changing in our country. We see that most closely through our national youth initiative, which is focused on young people ages 16 to 35. The former sense of a person participating in their community and engaging in civic duties out of a sense of patriotic obligation is the traditional definition of civic duty and civic engagement. I think increasingly young people are drawn into the conversation on democracy by being invited into it. Their participation is important. And they need to see that in very concrete and real ways. We just had our national launch in Chicago, which had over 4,000 young people come out on a really cold Saturday morning to engage in a conversation with community leaders and national leaders about our democracy. I think that speaks to the hunger and desire on young people’s part to participate. That enthusiasm has only increased, I’m happy to say. I think the institutions like newspapers are not serving the same purpose that they may have for previous generations.

BuzzFlash: You had this youth advocacy conference. BuzzFlash participated. It was a tremendous success and turnout and great interaction of ideas. It was aimed at young people. Do you feel that young people have a perception that they are frozen out? And that, really, what they say doesn’t matter? That we have a top-down society in terms of public policy?

John Hart: We have found that they want their voices to be listened to and they have not necessarily been invited to be heard. The development of policy doesn’t currently lend itself to a high degree of accessibility. I think the newspapers and the media traditionally gave people a window on that. I think there is a higher level of interest among young people to not merely look into the window, but to step into the door and to participate in it. And the American Democracy Institute is established to help people to understand how policy is formulated, and the kind of role different institutions such as the media and others play in our society, and where the opportunities exist for people to participate. What’s so very exciting is that they can help create new ways of doing it that we can’t even imagine right now. That’s one of the very exciting things about working with young people – that they’re not limited by the traditional definitions, and there is a real interest on their part to engage in new ways and active ways that drive towards results. I think far more than process, they are driven towards solutions. That’s what’s exciting.

BuzzFlash: Is the American Democracy Institute only focused on young people?

John Hart: No, - we’re a new start-up organization, and our national initiative currently is focused on young people. I don’t know where the future lies. We may find that that leads us naturally into a broader discussion with people. But for now, in our first stage, we’re focusing on young people.

BuzzFlash: One of the handouts at the conference in Chicago was "Leadership Development." And indeed that’s a key to what you’re doing. What does that term mean? How do you develop a leader?

John Hart: It’s an experiment on our part. As we engage people in a conversation on democracy, a big component of that is this notion of participation through civic engagement. At the same time, while we engage people in this discussion about ideas and issues, there’s also a recognition that there needs to be a resource for people to develop as leaders. I think that parallels the earlier discussion about the new ways that people are getting involved.

I had the benefit in the private sector of being in a position where I had access to executive coaching and leadership development as one of a top cadre of executives. That’s something that we ought to be offering to people who participate in communities across the country, and engage in civic discussion about who we are and where we’re going as a society. Those are the people who will lead the non-profit organizations that will be future leaders in government. Those are the people who will be future jurists. Those are the people who will, in ways that we can’t even imagine, represent the media and be reporting on issues. And those are the people who will be studying these things in academia. Those people, we think, ought to be exposed to not only issue areas, but to the skills and the development for becoming successful leaders.

BuzzFlash: Of course, as a (c)(3), you’re non-partisan. But in a discussion after your first rollout in Chicago, someone suggested that’s just a Democratic Party sort of thing to do, because that’s promoting lots of different viewpoints. And my response was, well, that’s democracy. If the Democratic Party has become equated with saying that everyone should be able to espouse their own perspective on issues of public affairs, then, in a way, is that saying the Democratic Party is equivalent to democracy? The Republican Party seems to be saying that America should only go in one direction, should only have one moral perspective, one dominant religion that conveys values and guides the Supreme Court. Well, that’s not democracy because democracy is supposed to include a multitude of perspectives. What’s your response to that viewpoint?

John Hart: We intentionally designed something that was not partisan, as a way to have a broader conversation far beyond partisanship. There is a more profound impact to be made in the broader public square if we bring viewpoints together or create a shared point of view. I would tell you what was really exciting about Chicago is that there were a number of people who came from a multitude of partisan backgrounds. There's a shared interest in having discussions beyond just a limiting, partisan discussion, and having a richer discussion about ideas.

BuzzFlash: News coverage does tend to view the political parties through a certain lens that’s partly due to the way the parties convey themselves, and partly due to the media's tendency to try to box things conveniently and without nuance. The Democratic Party stands for certain things. The Republican Party stands for certain things. Yet when you look at polling on a lot of the public policy issues, and you take it out of the realm of party versus party,  often on issue X there’s much more consensus than you would think when you remove it from the partisan conflict.

John Hart: Yes. We talk about focusing on what’s right, and not who’s right. I think that resonates strongly with people who are interested in having a really good discussion about ideas and how they apply to contemporary issues. It is worth noting that the auditorium where we had our national launch was the very same auditorium in which Theodore Roosevelt launched his Bull Moose Party. And that was to a progressive audience of what was then termed Republicans. I think what we’re doing is in many ways  new for people who look at this from a partisan point of view. Conservatives have been very effective engaging people in ideology and discussions about issues outside of the limitations of partisan politics.

BuzzFlash: I led a workshop at the invitation of the ADI – "Using Technology to Advance Democracy." One of the interesting things that the facilitator brought up was the gap between what you can do on the Internet to marshal forces, versus actually involving people on a day-to-day basis out in the three-dimensional world away from their computer screens. How does ADI plan to work with that component? Someone says, I’m a young person, I’m all fired up. I’ve worked on the Internet. I’ve come to the ADI. What’s next? They say, I want to have a stake in how public policy is determined for my city, for my state, for my national government. Now what do I do?

John Hart: As a part of going into Chicago, we invited organizations to highlight the work that they’re doing as a part of offering direct and immediate opportunities for people to get involved. At the same time, our work is to truly listen to what young people want to do and how they want to get involved. We have literally thousands of evaluations and feedback from people who attended Chicago who are expressing a whole host of ways that they want to get involved. At the end of the day for us, it really boils down to a matter of trust – we trust that the young people will tell us what they want to do, and we’ll help to facilitate doing it. For us to be truly responsive to the needs of the young people, we need to listen to their interests and the kind of things that they’re drawn to, and hope that we can offer them, through existing institutions and through resources about developing new ones, opportunities to create their own solutions.

BuzzFlash: Recently in the United States, voter participation in a Presidential election dropped below 50% of registered voters. Do you think something like ADI can improve the number of people who vote?

John Hart: One indicator of civic participation and engagement clearly is voting. Voting is the cornerstone of a democracy. Our hope is that people’s engagement will lead to a greater, fuller, more comprehensive participation in democracy, the voting being one component of that. What’s curious about working with young people is that, when you break down the voting patterns, the one that’s growing actually, is among young people. I think it speaks to their desire to have their voices heard and to shape through civic participation the direction of their future.

BuzzFlash: Let me take one specific issue. Hillary Clinton was the keynote speaker at the event, and she talked about how the burgeoning deficit is something that the young people there should be concerned about, because it’s going to impact them. The IOU is going to come due as they mature to adulthood. They’re going to be saddled with this debt more than the generation that’s creating it. And the House is passing additional tax cuts for the wealthy. I think totally $93 billion, which wipes out the so-called deficit reduction when they take away a lot of the money from social welfare programs. If I’m a young person, Hillary Clinton has challenged me at the ADI event and says, you know, it is an issue that is going to impact you, so you should have a say. What do I do then about that issue?

John Hart: Well, people are often intimidated by the prospect of directly getting involved by participating, because the process of democracy doesn’t open many doors to them for their own viewpoint. We hope that ADI will provide a forum for that, but also in engaging on issues. Particularly around issues of economics, there is its own intimidation, which speaks to people’s comfort level in discussing the issues. I think there needs to be a better-developed sense of fiscal literacy so that people can engage in a full-blown discussion on these issues. The level of discussions that are currently available to the public don’t go very deep. They kind of espouse different positions, and then it stops. What we hope to do, by educating people on issues and helping them to develop their own sense of the issues, is that they’ll ask as many questions as they will as a part of the discussion. I think that enriches our democracy. For example, we had a workshop on economics that was really a robust discussion full of questions as well as kind of a more conventional education about economics 101. That discussion in particular was one that extended far beyond the workshop because people were really engaged in it, and there aren’t many opportunities for them to get involved in the issues.

BuzzFlash: You're working to enrich the depth of the conversation about specific public policy options?

John Hart: Right.

BuzzFlash: We have 180,000 readers a weekday on BuzzFlash. If they want to learn more about ADI and participate, what are some of the things they can do?

John Hart: They can visit our website – www.americandemocracyinstitute.org. Also, we hope to travel around the country and replicate what we started in Chicago, which is to engage people in a discussion around the issues of democracy, and then provide resources for the development of young emerging leaders as a part of leading that debate. We’ll be going throughout the country to do that. We extend an open invitation to people to let us know the kind of work we should be doing that would be most impactful. I think our first year is really to engage people, and in doing so, to listen. That’s the mission for us.

BuzzFlash: So the American Democracy Institute is a work in progress.

John Hart: Like our democracy.

BuzzFlash: John Hart, thank you and congratulations on a great launch in Chicago. And best of luck, because we certainly need this sort of depth of discussions and leadership development for our democracy.

John Hart: It’s always a pleasure.

A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW

Interview Conducted by BuzzFlash Editor Mark Karlin.

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