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The importance of inclusivity

What do we mean when we say that most current political conversation is not “inclusive?”

To oversimplify things greatly, there are two kinds of political conversations that take place in this (and probably any democratic) country: deliberations between politicians and people that have direct access to politicians, and discussions between the rest of us about what the decision-makers are doing. The people in the first kind of conversation have the authority to implement change or influence it. The people in the second kind of conversation are merely spectators, witnesses to a very small percentage of the first kind of conversation. We’re free to discuss what we’ve witnessed with one another as much as we like, but our access to the decision-makers is extremely limited.

C-SPAN often carries Congressional Committee hearings, for example, which feature legislators interacting with one another and whatever experts they have called before them. Of course, these events are only a heavily scripted reflection of the private conversations that take place where real decisions are made. Still, they provide a keyhole glimpse into the deliberations of those with power. Watching these committee hearings -- or a political figure being interviewed, or a snippet of Congressional floor debate that might be included in the nightly news – one is limited to that spectator role. The only conversation we can have about what we’ve seen is with one another, and these conversations are very similar to ones we might have about a television show, movie, or concert. We have no expectation that we can change the course of the television series, and we have no realistic sense that we can change the course of the Congress (or the country), either.

I don’t mean to overstate the gap between these two kinds of political conversation. There is no barbed wire fence that separates them. Having money and connections makes it far easier to participate in public policy deliberations, but almost any spectator can gain some access to these deliberations, at least to some extent, if s/he is persistent enough and willing to build or join a large enough group of fellow citizens. But the fact that migration between the different kinds of conversation is possible does not negate the reality that there are these two distinct kinds of conversation, and that the gulf between them is great. Public policy deliberations remain very exclusive interactions, and too few people have real access to and influence on the decisions that get made in them.

In addition, there are no alternatives to the two extremes. We think there should be a third type of conversation, which might be a hybrid of the two predominant models – perhaps we could call them political dialogues. People could engage with each other about important issues in a vast public square, coming up with original ideas, collaborating with others who think similarly, challenging each other to question shaky assumptions. These conversations would be different than the deliberations of the powerful, remaining several large steps removed from the interactions that actually shape public policy (although politicians and other influential individuals could participate). But these dialogues would also be several steps up from the private conversations of spectators, because of the complicated web of connections and interactions that they would encourage. The possibility of broader coalition-building would give these conversations greater weight than the idle speculation of powerless individual observers.