Sorry to say it, but our political system rides on lip service.
Our parties supposedly appeal to “patriotic Americans” as a whole. But visit any serious political operation, and you’ll find the generality of Americans sliced and diced into exquisitely refined groups, each structured for focused, efficient, narrow-casted appeal.
By demography: race, gender, geography, income, education, ethnicity, age. By ideology: conservative, liberal, centrist, Tea Party, lefty, libertarian, anarchist. By habit: church-going; martial arts-watching; classical (or hard rock) music-listening, fly fishing, running, couch-sitting.
With these classifications in the back of your mind, it’s pretty easy to look at a political TV spot and work out to which group the appeal is being made.
And the question arises whether all the fragmentation underlying our political discourse makes it impossible to bring people together to express their views as ordinary people.
In today’s Bridge, we set out the ongoing attempt by the Center for Michigan to call forth the collective views of Michigan residents. Contained in the report “Michigan Speaks,” this process has resulted this year in nothing less than a citizens’ agenda for Michigan.
Over the past seven months, the Center has brought citizens together in “community conversations,” small (usually 10-15, but occasionally as large as 50) groups meeting in relaxed settings designed to provide a space for thoughtful and mutually respectful conversation about the issues of the day. More than 5,500 Michiganders participated, roughly 3,700 in community conversations and another 1,200 in two statewide polls designed to provide statistical rigor to the findings.
This process of mutual working through of varying viewpoints is essential to the formation of a broad-based public attitude that should underlay our political process and overcome the lip service we see so much of today.
The Center has been doing this work for the past six years, bringing together over this time a total of more than 30,000 Michiganders whose diverse demography in age, gender, race and geography looks exactly like the face of Michigan – the largest continued public engagement campaign in Michigan history and one of the largest in the country.
It’s not a poll, which is a quick take, an attempt to take a momentary picture of public opinion. Rather, it is a process that might be called “deliberative democracy,” one that cuts through the purposeful lip service of political cut and thrust to reveal the underlying attitudes of our people.
During election years, this work has often served the important purpose of focusing political discourse and debate away from the sensational, the ideological or the merely irrelevant during election years. Four years ago, in a report titled “Michigan’s Defining Moment,” the Center set out the views of 10,000 Michigan citizens. Every single candidate for governor came to our office to probe deeply into our findings, and the report turned out to have a significant influence on Gov. Rick Snyder’s legislative agenda for the first couple of years of his administration.
We hope Michigan Speaks has the same effect this time around.
During this year’s public engagement process, we discovered at least two newsworthy majority attitudes held by Michiganders. No surprise is the importance of fixing the roads and bridges that have deteriorated especially rapidly over the harsh winter. What’s surprising is that a majority of participants are also willing to pay more taxes to do so.
But there is much, much more in the 30-page entire report, which includes both demographic cross tabs and a careful explanation of the methodology used in the public outreach process. You can download the entire report for yourself here.
I hope you find it a useful contribution to the public life of making Michigan a better place.