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Sender: "Bruce Schuman"
Subject: The Uninvolved Citizen and Transpartisanship
Date: Mon, Mar 24, 2014
Msg: 100813

From: List for transpartisan leaders and innovators [mailto:TRANSPARTISAN@LISTS.THATAWAY.ORG] On Behalf Of Will Friedman Sent: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 1:52 PM To: TRANSPARTISAN@LISTS.THATAWAY.ORG Subject: Re: [TRANSPARTISAN] The Uninvolved Citizen and Transpartisanship

Interesting post, Michael. I'm going to quibble with it a bit--see what you think.

I can understand why one would surmise that the sort of "political ignorance" that has been documented in various studies (and they're such easy surveys to design and such fun to analyze) means that deliberative democracy is impractical and impossible. I happen to think it's wrong-headed, but there's certainly a logic to the conclusion.

I don't deny the results of those studies. Rather, I suggest that a more participatory and deliberative democracy does not require citizens to become experts on a wide variety of issues. Rather, it requires a productive integration of the kind of deliberating that experts can do and are good at (highly informed and deeply analytic with respect to the technical dimensions of problems) and the kind of deliberating that citizens are quite capable of, especially if provided some minimally supportive conditions (wrestling with values questions, deciding upon the desirability and acceptability of the practical consequences of different policies, providing the kind of non-expert knowledge that people close to a problem often possess...). Moreover, it is probably also useful to recognize that many citizens can develop significant expertise in one or two public issues (as in the notion of issue publics) and somewhat straddle these two worlds, creating some connective tissue.

Admittedly, these observations, even if they hold up to scrutiny, are far from a neat answer as to how to promote deliberative democracy, but they do suggest that political ignorance is not necessarily the show-stopper that it is sometimes thought to be. On this score, let me add that it's one thing to ask whether or not citizen capacity can support a full and formal "deliberative democracy;" and another to ask whether or not we can make our democracy significantly more deliberative than it currently is, and if so, if that will have desirable consequences. I submit that the latter is the better formulation in that it sets one up for potentially ameliorative action with respect to the purpose of this gathering: The possibility of escaping mindless polarization and partisan excess so that real problems can be better solved.

Will Friedman

Public Agenda

On Tue, Mar 11, 2014 at 8:41 PM, Michael Strong wrote:


There is a substantial academic literature on the phenomenon of political ignorance, going back many decades with results from many nations. One of the findings is that most citizens in most nations are largely ignorant most of the time. Here is a Salon article summarizing,

Critical Review, the journal mentioned in the article, has been one of the leading venues for the publication of research on political ignorance. They have published dozens of articles on various dimensions of this issue in the past two decades. Because the phenomenon has been remained steady despite immense increases in the education levels of the citizenry in the U.S. and elsewhere, and is common around the world, most scholars are skeptical that anything can be done to change the fact that most people, most of the time, don't care enough about politics to be well informed.

I'm convinced by this literature, summarized here by Ilya Somin, that the entire idea of "deliberative democracy" is a fantasy in large communities,

regardless of what we were taught in civics class.

How large is "large"? The "Dunbar number," the groups in which we evolved, were around 150 people. Somin seems to think that a jurisdiction of 10,000 might function, which is about the size of Athenian democracy or the Vermont town meetings romanticized by many of the civically-minded.

Whatever it is, we are vastly beyond the scale at which "deliberative democracy" might plausibly have functioned well. The largest states at the time of the American founding were several hundred thousand people, of whom only a tiny fraction were actually allowed to vote. Remarkably today many smaller jurisdictions seem to function reasonably well - Norway, Finland and Denmark are about 5 million, as is Singapore. Switzerland, which is highly decentralized, has about 8 million, with most cantons in the range of a few hundred thousand.

But we have more than ten states with a population larger than Switzerland, and twenty or more states with a population larger than Singapore, Norway, Finland, and Denmark. Sweden, at 9.5 million would come in at about 10th place among U.S. states. While Singapore is ethnically diverse, the Scandinavian nations are far more ethnically and culturally homogenous than is the U.S.

Somin, above, concludes that because of political ignorance, we should keep the federal government (and the larger state governments) down to a minimal set of functions: Better to do a few things well than many things poorly.

With respect to your question, "Does it matter?"

I would say, "Yes." I personally believe that Big Finance, for example, is screwing us over regardless as to whether the Ds or the Rs win (they are major donors to both parties). Big Ag is also screwing us over (with big donations to both parties ensures that corn continues to receive huge subsidies), as are Big Construction, Big Real Estate, Big Health Care, etc.

I see the greatest potential of the transpartisan movement to be to create a space in which transpartisan dialogue can find ways to create transpartisan wins against the special interests. Routine, highly polarized political dialogue redirects electoral debates into highly emotional symbolic issues (e.g. gay marriage, abortion) which allow special interests to quietly continue to extract economic rents from the rest of us.

Mutual demonization by the Ds and the Rs suits Goldman Sachs or General Electric or ADM just fine - they keep getting their subsidies while the political squabbles go and on and on.

On Tue, Mar 11, 2014 at 6:43 PM, Evelyn Messinger wrote:

Engaging citizens is at the root of the Transpartisan mission, and some recent posts on this list provide an opportunity to confront the question of citizen engagement head-on.

Rick Raddatz wrote, "60% of adults can't name their senators, and this had remained steady across time and across all large democracies -- it's not just an American thing..." Michael Strong added that "the vast majority of citizens are stunningly ignorant regarding the most basic facts of political debate." And we all know how dismal voter turnout is in the US and Europe.

There is some disagreement about the make-up of the great disengaged, and resolving this would be helpful. Do they occupy the "center," essentially agreeing on a great majority of issues, ending up disengaged because partisan ideologies have become too extreme? Are they generally "sigle-issue" types, with strong feelings on the right to life or climate change, but otherwise alienated from the parties that champion these positions? Or are they too busy, uneducated, frivolous and/or cynical to engage in the political process as it is now configured?

Two additional questions can be framed by applying Tom Atlee's excellent dissection of the "Trans" in Transpartisanship to the issue of engaging the uninvolved masses:

- Can more people be engaged by reaching across the divide, and therefore giving them what they long for, political bodies willing to compromise in order to achieve results?

- Would people be energized by going "beyond parties and ideologies altogether," focusing on issues where nascent agreement already exists?

Finally, does it even matter if most people remain disengaged? Is there a magic number of supporters - I've heard 20% of a given population - at which an issue or political platform or candidate becomes viable?

Your thoughts most welcome! Thanks and regards,


-- Evelyn Messinger +1.415.377.6278


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-- Michael Strong CEO and Chief Visionary Officer FLOW, Inc.

For the definitive Conscious Capitalism book, see Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems, by Michael Strong with John Mackey, CEO Whole Foods Market, Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Hernando de Soto, Co-Chair of the U.N. Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, and others, and listen to John Mackey's audio CD Passion and Purpose: The Power of Conscious Capitalism, both available at or

Liberating the Entrepreneurial Spirit for Good

When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.

Leonardo Da Vinci


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-- Will Friedman, Ph.D. President

Public Agenda 6 East 39th Street New York, NY 10016 212-686-6610 ext. 121


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