As we approach the upcoming fall elections, we hear a lot about the importance of voting. To that, we’d like to say an emphatic “yes—and.” Yes, voting is essential for democracy. Get out there and do it! And we need to practice other forms of democratic participation to improve the health of our democracy. Democracy is about self-governance through the free exercise of choice among real options. A diversity of options is essential to the freedom we associate with democracy. If we are only engaging with these choices at election time, and if we’re always simply responding to the limited options created by others, then how healthy is our democracy?
Discussion is essential for any democracy, and regular citizen discussions are essential if we want our democracy to flourish. When we as citizens develop ideas together through exploratory and deliberative discussions, it has a dual beneficial effect: we improve our choices and we build our civic capacity.
First, we think better when we think together. The wisdom of crowds can far outweigh that of the isolated individual, but we have to create the conditions under which this can be true. We believe facilitated, exploratory discussion enables people to get together and expand their civic imaginations. Through discussion we are able to imagine a topic from multiple perspectives, beyond the scope of any single person. We are able to see the multiple dimensions of people’s lives that are affected by an issue and develop a more robust range of policy possibilities that citizens could choose. Through discussion we can develop more inclusive policy possibilities that reflect the concerns, desires, and needs of a greater range of people. And we might develop a deeper sense of what these choices would actually mean—much deeper and more nuanced than the sloganeering around election time. This is practicing democracy as healthy self-governance.
Second, as our colleagues in dialogue and deliberation often say: citizens are not born, they are made. The practice of engaging well with fellow citizens is not simple or obvious. It requires skills, habits, and civic muscle. These traits are developed through practicing discussion with others on topics that are important for society. Through these discussions, we not only build our own individual capacity to engage with others across different perspectives, but we also build public capacity. We are strengthening our democratic society’s capacity to govern itself even as we develop our personal skills. Through civic discussions, we demonstrate that we can disagree but still work together to self-govern. We help build public trust, strengthen our communities, and restore our body politic.
So yes, yes, yes—please vote this fall. And—before and after the elections—please discuss. Engage with your fellow citizens in a generous and exploratory way on topics that are important for our society. We think you’ll find discussion is a meaningful thing that you can do to start reweaving the frayed fabric of our communities.