Stitching up democracy

I have been reading, studying, practicing, and blogging about interpersonal political conversation techniques for going on a year now. Talking politics: If we don’t learn how, our American civic discourse will consist of nothing but political messages crafted on Madison Avenue to promote the interests of those who are wealthy enough to purchase them.

After he spoke tonight at the Economic Democracy Conference in Madison, I asked John Nichols a question, based on an assumption that he shared my sense of the value of talking politics with our friends and neighbors.

His answer was unequivocal: “Each political conversation is a failure. Every one. It doesn’t work. It’s not enough. It’s insufficient. The person may walk away from us. They may not hear us.”

With that, I knew that Nichols knew what he was talking about. I’ve posted before about the futility of expecting that one conversation will change anyone’s mind about anything.

It just doesn’t happen. So what is the point?

Nichols likened our efforts at person-to-person political conversation to his grandmother’s quilting.

“We have to recognize that each of these conversations is part of a fabric,” he said. When his grandmother starts a quilt, he said, “You know it’s going to be something like eight feet square when she’s done. That’s a daunting task.” Not one of those squares is going to have made a quilt when she puts down her needle each evening.

“But day after day, she brings in little pieces of fabric, thread. And someday—weeks, months after she begins—there is an exquisite quilt.”

That is a great way to think of our political conversations. We’re not going win a convert with every conversation, but we are going to add something of value to the overall dialogue. We’re not going to plant our beliefs in someone else’s mind, but we are going to build relationships with fellow citizens—relationships that are essential to sharing responsibility for self-government.

Some of our political conversations will be small patches in a quilt. Others might be more like seeds. When you walk away from the garden on planting day, it’s just as much of a plain old dirt patch as when you started. No visible difference at all. But a few months later…

Yesterday in a Facebook group about election integrity, we were discussing some good/bad news from Palm Beach County, Florida.   The bad news is that a computer miscounted votes, causing election officials to certify the loser as the winner in a city council election. The good news is that the county’s Supervisor of Elections, Susan Bucher, and her team discovered the mistake and corrected the error a few days after the election. Most elections in most counties with computer-counted votes never audit the results and never know whether the machine counted correctly. Bucher and Palm Beach County are the exception, not the rule.

One of my Facebook friends noted that he had been at a meeting with Bucher in May 2011 and had talked with her about voting machines’ unreliability.  He wrote that Bucher at that time “objected strongly and took great offense, saying her system was foolproof, and was very condescending and dismissive of my solution as to how the problem could be fixed if election officials wanted to.”

Of course, none of us know for sure, but it’s quite possible my Facebook friend’s chat with the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections—as badly as it went at the time—got her thinking, maybe paying a little more attention to information about voting machines’ vulnerabilities. Maybe that conversation helped to pique her curiosity to do more audits than required—and maybe saved democracy in one election in one county.

“Keep working at it, and not just at election time,” was Nichols’ message. We and our fellow citizens are “marinated in political propaganda” from the mass media. However frustrating it might be from day to day, we need to engage in person-to-person politics—political conversation—if we are to defend and save democracy.


About Karen McKim

Retired from a 30-year career in public sector quality assurance and management auditing, I now spend my time freelance writing, largely on topics related to our right to self-government. I have two main focuses: how we can protect our election results from miscounts (whether deliberate or accidental), and skills for talking politics with our fellow citizens. I am based in Wisconsin.
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3 Responses to Stitching up democracy

  1. Vicky says:

    Nobody ever wins an argument. I don’t remember who said that, but I do know that it is impossible to listen and try to “win” at the same time.

    The image of quilting implies that there is a point at which one’s work is finished. May I toss into the metaphorical soup the image of courting? There are milestones along the way — building trust, lowering defenses, confessing feelings, sharing intimacy, getting married — but a wedding isn’t a “happy ending,” as much as it is a rite of passage.

    A client of mine once complained that an advertising tactic he had tried for his business “hadn’t worked.” I asked him what that meant. It meant, he said, that no new customers had picked up the phone to call him as a result.

    I asked him whether he had dated his wife before they married.

    “Of course,” he answered.
    “Did you get lucky on the first date?” I asked.
    “Does that mean the first date ‘didn’t work’?”

  2. Karen McKim says:

    Love that analogy, Vicky! I’m going to steal and use it the next time I write about this!

  3. Karen McKim says:

    My sister left a great comment on my Facebook page: “I love the quilt analogy, and the seed even more. Whether it is about trying some new method of teaching, religion, diet, OR poilitics, we share our thoughts with others and hopefully listen to their theories and ideas, keeping a tiny seed of thought about what they said, nurturing it and mulling it over until we blend it in with what rings true for us. The problem comes when there are things we feel strongly are weeds that should not be nurtured.

    That weed-seed analogy is a great addition to the points I made in my blog post. Thanks, sis! We absolutely need to be careful not to plant weed seeds. There is so much valuable political conversation to be had sticking only to values and ideas, and yet we waste time with weedy ‘facts’ that none of us can–if we’re honest with ourselves–be confident are true. Is there any regular citizen who really knows whether Obamacare is going to increase or decrease wasteful spending in our health care system? Answer: No, there is not. And yet we are willing to risk our personal integrity by passing along figures given to us by paid political hacks. Each of us has probably helped to spread weed seeds by passing along propaganda masquerading as useful, true civic information.

    We’re on firmer ground when we:

    • know something to be true (e.g., I have seen with my own eyes fraudulent documents created by a major national mortgage-servicing company and filed with the court in a friend’s foreclosure case);
    • are talking about simple logic (e.g., Why Romney’s experience at Bain and his life-long wealth should increase or decrease our trust in him to lead our entire federal government in the direction we want it to go–a conversation a friend related to me earlier this morning); or
    • are articulating and sharing the values that shape our political preferences.

    Finally, I’m reminded that lawns with lots of healthy grass resist weeds better than lawns with sparse thin grass. The more we can do to nurture widespread awareness of true, real, useful information and ideas, the more success we and our fellow citizens will have in resisting lies and propaganda.

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