It amazes me to see what happens to people who come to our dialogues thinking they simply want to hear people who are different from themselves. After listening to members of the other tribes, they realize they are hearing facts and opinions that they’ve never heard before.
For example, many liberals have a lot of facts to support their view about climate change. Correspondingly, many conservatives, particularly the more liberty-minded ones, have lots of facts about the corruption of the Federal Reserve and the monopoly banking system. When they begin to really listen to each other, the look on their faces says, “I’ve never thought about that before!”
When they do this deeper level of listening, when they begin to get curious, they begin to wonder about what else they don’t know or what other information they don’t get from the news sources they usually pay attention to. People begin to assemble a larger picture of reality than they had when they first came to the group.
The result is people begin to educate each other. To educate—from the Latin educare—literally means to “to draw out of the mind.” By responding to broad questions like, “What’s going on in America?” people begin to listen to the amazingly different responses that begin to lead their minds in totally unexpected directions. Participants find themselves having thoughts and speaking words that are completely new for them; they are evolving politically. Between meetings they begin researching and fact-checking, and return to the next meeting curious to know more, to talk more, to listen to others, and to catalyze new thoughts.
This is precisely what our “education system” doesn’t do. It is not designed to draw things out of us; it’s designed to put things into us. I call it “the boss, the clock, and the bell.” It was designed by Horace Mann in the 1830s and ’40s, modeled after the Prussian system, specifically “intended by the Prussian royal court to instill social obedience in the citizens through indoctrination.” It was designed to create “good children” citizens.
As adults, people have to re-learn how to think critically. Critical thinking skills have been bred out of us. Transpartisan dialogue, where you’re hearing things from reasonable people that you’ve never heard before, is an educating experience.
Conversation with other “tribes” that bring new information is a way to reawaken critical thinking. We playfully call this the “up-wising,” because by comparing notes, people are wising up about what’s really so. One area of critical research and rethinking is the role of corporations in American life. When did they become “persons” with the same rights as natural persons? How did this happen? What are the implications?
Another example is elections. After talking about it and checking the facts, people from all sides realize that we can’t verify our elections. Where do we go to do an audit? What’s the process? If we can’t trust our election system, what does that mean?
People begin to realize that, in the words of Steve Bhaerman, “common sense is the sense we all have in common.” When you get all sides in the room and compare notes, common sense says things don’t add up!
The question then becomes “where do we go to get accurate information?” Can we trust CNN or Fox News? Or do we need alternative sources. I have a friend, Robert Steele, a former CIA officer whose job it was to gather, organize and synthesize vast amounts of data into usable, actionable information. He calls the need for trustworthy information “public intelligence for the public good.” This is what we as people need to be doing. We need to draw information from as many sources as possible and to apply our common sense to discern what is true and then, feeling confident we have a clear picture, figure out what to do.
If you go a step deeper and consider the consequences of our Prussian-model education system, another major body of knowledge that is missing from the average citizen’s knowledge base is fundamental principles and philosophy of government.
People don’t know what a republic is, or what that means. They don’t know what a democracy is, or what that really means. They don’t understand the relationship between a democracy and a republic. They have never read the Federalist Papers or Constitution. These are fundamental building blocks of society for which I find transpartisan dialogue to be particularly suited to helping people understand.
Some of the people who come to our groups know a great deal, in detail, about the way government works and was intended to work. Some have deep backgrounds in philosophy of law, participative democracy, voting systems, etc. Often these are the type of people drawn to the dialogue because they see how far off track we are, and they have studied the way other societies work and how America should work.
Often people have been misled or confused by what they have heard on TV or on the radio, and they really want to understand. One of the things I personally have practiced for a decade is “media freedom.” I have tuned out of all media except what I get from my e-mail. I don’t even read news on the Internet.
At first you might say, “Well, you must be really uninformed,” and actually it’s quite the opposite. It has caused me to zoom out, to see the big picture more clearly, and to connect dots I otherwise would never have connected. Major media is truly confusing, even hypnotizing, i.e., saying the same thing over and over till your subconscious accepts it as fact, whether it is or not.
Through my practice of engaging in regular transpartisan dialogue, I now get most of my information from conversation. I listen to other people, then do some fact-checking and check it against my “gut” (or heart.) If it makes common sense and I have heard it, or pieces of it, from many different sources, I start paying attention. It doesn’t mean I start “believing,” it simply means I continue to educate myself. I continue to allow other people to draw out my thoughts on the subject. This is what is often called the Socratic Method. We can get to the truth simply by talking about it long enough, asking ourselves and others the right questions, then listening and reflecting.
The other fascinating thing I’ve learned about citizen education is that everyone learns differently. Some people need to learn through a story. Stories evidently take us back to when we were children and grab our curiosity. When I hear, “Once upon a time… ” or “Do you want to hear a story?” I immediately change my point of view—I become a little more childlike, a little more open and curious.
Other people need to feel things. They learn through experience, touch, music, even dance. That’s why in our Chautauqua town halls we’ve added music. It gets people out of their minds and into their hearts. I’ve even participated in dialogues where we would take occasional stretch, dance, or silly game breaks. These methods are called “state changes” and help to change your state so you can relax and be more receptive to new ideas and information.
The fruit of citizen education is that people begin to move out of denial—a stance that “everything’s fine.” Denial has killed many civilizations and can easily kill ours. Transpartisan dialogue helps people wake up, and once they’re awake, they generally ask themselves, what can I do? They are ready to enter the next level of conversation—action.
 Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
Excerpted from Reuniting America: A Toolkit for Changing the Political Game by Joseph McCormick and Steve Bhaerman
After nearly a decade as a Christian Coalition activist and Republican nominee for the U.S. Congress in one of the most conservative districts in America, Joseph McCormick learned firsthand the most destructive force in our country today is Americans taking sides against other Americans. The turning point in his life came in 2001 when his political career, marriage, business and reputation collapsed, his relationships having been eroded by mistrust and hatred of his enemies. The pain of this personal loss was transformative and he began slowly rebuilding his life on more solid ground, searching for a healthier way to engage in politics.
Since 2004 he has organized a series of ground breaking private retreats that brought over 145 national leaders representing over 70 million Americans into dialogue in search of opportunities to collaborate. His passion now is to apply the tools developed in these gatherings to facilitating cooperation between grassroots groups from all sides. In time, this informal citizen leader’s network will serve as a resource for local, state and national decision makers searching for innovative, bottom-up, win-win solutions in this time of crisis. He is a former officer in the U.S. Army Rangers and a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and Yale University. For more information, click here.