We sought to upgrade our democracy. Like well-trodden explorers looking for adventure, we came to Philadelphia last weekend to answer the beckoning call from our Founding Fathers rolling in their graves. “The town hall is dead,” was a whisper from the annals of history we could not shake as we set foot upon the soil of the National Constitution Center.
Joined by some of my collaborators, we networked with others of our Millennial generation interested in continuing the conversation about how we can establish a new vision of American Democracy. Were we being revolutionary, reformist, or just flippantly remiss? Time would tell. Collectively, we all engaged in a conversation, but not exactly in a way we here at NCDD are accustomed to seeing. Instead of the focus being squarely on public dialogue and deliberation as a means of civic engagement, a competition was the means of engaging each other to re-think our vision of what it means to upgrade our democracy.
For two days, everyone listened to a few guest speakers who inspired us to reconsider the “self” in “self-government.” Last Friday, Dr. Beeman’s lecture spoke to me in such as way as to remind me that to secure our rights—consistently—requires an active and informed participation in our government. In fact, is not the word ‘government’ misleading? Should we not characterize this aspect of our culture as ‘governance,’ something we all have a responsibility to share? Dr. Beeman’s recount of the summer of 1787, whereby the 55 Framers helped forge a Constitution, revealed an unusual amount of cooperation, forbearance, and consensus. These qualities of leadership would be essential to the collaborative process of making a shared document that would reflect a youthful “We The People.” Perhaps, if democracy is an unfinished project, then can the Summer of 1787 shed light on what we can find that still remains to be finished? Is the Constitution a perfect document, even today? What are the lessons of 1787? Four months of intense debates and deliberations to create the Constitution…what if we tried that at the National Constitution Center or in a local café on my neighborhood block? These questions remained with me deep into the night.
The next morning, Congressman Patrick Murphy (D-PA) spoke to all of us about the need to alleviate partisanship in the Congress. Again, I think of 1787. If the U.S. Constitution represents an experiment in Federal Union, attempting as an initial step toward a more perfect union, then perhaps the recent swell of interest in public service and participatory democracy is a reflection of our need to experiment in localized union. The Congressman spoke of our present historic election and how the Congress will need to form more bipartisanship to tackle challenges that face us as a nation. And, yet something else too he said we must remember: That when Members of Congress and the President-elect take the Oath, they declare allegiance, not to any political leader, but to the U.S. Constitution.
The Oath for newly elected or re-elected Congressmen: I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
What about us as citizens who have jobs outside of formal government? Are we as willing and capable to ‘support and defend’ the U.S. Constitution?
Later that morning, many of us participated in ‘Thought Leader’ sessions where summit participants engaged in group dialogue and an interactive polling process on the 2008 Election, Millennial engagement, Web 2.0 in the political process, revisiting the Democracy 2.0 Declaration and the U.S. Constitution. One group I was a part of explored what possible concerns the Framers would have today about civic engagement culture. Some of the different thoughts shared were about online echo chambers of dialogue or political views, lack of ability to communicate nuances, superficial accountability, blurring of boundaries between public and private, and of staccato online posts that camouflages deeper public discourse.
Some concerns were expressed, even some about how the Democracy 2.0 Declaration needs to begin to evolve its set of principles more concretely. For example, what if we could begin to declare our various paths toward this ‘new vision’ we seek to establish? Arguably, no debate at the Summit provided such a jolt to this vision as the debate from all the Assembly about proposing a Constitutional amendment to lower the voting age. In a spirited debate, pros argued in favor of lowering the voting age to 16, because such young Americans still pay a share of taxes, have responsibilities such as driving, and by doing so, possess more accountability and shared responsibility. One person against the proposal declared that the lowering of age would, in effect, allow votes for combat operations even though those voted would still be ineligible for such military service.
After the debate in our provisional Constitutional Convention, many teams worked late into the night to finish up some final touches to their presentations. The final day was full of action and excitement as teams competed for a few grant prizes in front of a panel of judges affiliated with the advocacy and civic engagement non-profit sector. As we all competed with our elevator pitches in front of a panel of judges and then our final presentations, a teammate of mine spoke of how our generation sees the world through a different paradigm: we think that anything is possible. As the Internet is transforming industry after industry, governance will be one of the next areas to feel the wave.
And even though my teammates and I would have liked to have won, we did manage to have a great learning experience by recognizing lessons learned and ways to move our young Millennial leaders forward to enrich the practice of our democracy, especially using collaboration technology. One lesson I learned was that perhaps there’s a need to distinguish between all the various activities of civic engagement, some of which are really mere one-way communication, which may have value. Yet, I wonder, how can we create a mosaic of civic engagement activity (voting, volunteering, political blogging, megaphones, dialogue, deliberation, etc.) which really achieves a higher level of quality greater than the individual activities alone?
Maybe that’s a good question to generate more exploration into sustainable, long-term solutions for civic engagement. Maybe there’s a way all of us can work together to tackle and create experiments that test new ways of instituting within our communities policies and solutions driven by the vision of our communities.
Visit the Convention website at www.democracyupgrade.com for more details, or www.mobilize.org to see some of flurry of activity that resulted in Millennials around the country engaging in discussions about the election and American democracy.
Alexander Moll is co-founder and Board Member of Neighborhood Democracy Network, Inc., a new 501c3 organization founded to help citizens reclaim their right and responsibility to participate in their own governance boldly and actively; and to more perfectly make one policy out of many.