Calling the Question

The 2004 campaign season threatens to become the most polarized in recent memory. Candidates and parties are locked in a brutal blame game that only further alienates a public that has already largely seceded from politics out of disgust with the lack of progress on a host of urgent problems. Politicians across the spectrum bemoan the lack of civility and mutual respect but appear powerless to reverse the downward trend. All agree that this polarization is paralyzing our ability to effectively address the unprecedented convergence of crises we face both nationally and globally.

Yet at the same time, there is increasing evidence that beneath this poisonous partisanship and outside the Beltway blame game we as a people share far more than we realize. Day after day, moment after moment, we cooperate with one another in innumerable ways despite our apparently irreconcilable differences. Politicians and the media both profit in the near term by accentuating these differences, but most ordinary Americans are less interested in prosecuting the argument than in finding answers.

Much of the public is more pragmatic than ideological. In survey after survey, they reveal their concern and frustration with politicians who attack each other rather than the problem. They yearn for the kind of ?can-do? attitude that built this country and for which it is justly celebrated -- a people that rolls up its sleeves, puts shoulder to shoulder and moves aside all obstacles in pursuit of a practical solution. It is this ?silent majority? of pragmatic Americans that we plan to mobilize as a base to advocate for ?the whole? ? the common interest -- in addition to their own particular points of view.

The Calling the Question initiative is a multi-year initiative to shift the national conversation from partisanship to problem-solving by engaging a broad spectrum of the public in calling in to talk radio, querying candidates in media and live appearances, and reframing policy debates by asking open, breakthrough, ?third side? questions that blame no one but encourage us to think in practical terms about what we can do together to resolve the challenges that confront us all. The aim of this initiative is to reach across the divide between thoughtful progressives and thoughtful conservatives to catalyze ?convergence conversations? that could contribute to a broader de-polarization of an increasingly divided electorate and society.

The phrase, ?Calling the Question,? refers to a parliamentary procedure that occurs at the end of extensive debate, which says in effect, ?Okay, so what do we do now?? In many ways, the challenges we face both nationally and globally are of such a scale and severity that we are collectively being forced to ?call the question? ? to cease bickering and decide what we are going to do together to effectively address them. The phrase has particular relevance for our work since it is focused both on calling in to talk radio, the town meeting of our time, and posing the kinds of open, breakthrough questions that shift our focus from feuding to fixing, from partisanship to problem-solving.

Purpose & Potential Outcomes

- To catalyze a shift in the public debate from who?s to blame to how to fix it, from the past into the present and future, whatever the issue at stake

- To move away from leading questions that actually conceal a one-sided answer leaving no room for anyone else to join in the search for a solution that works for all

- To move us from opposite sides of the table shoving the problem towards one another to the same side of the table facing the problem shoulder-to-shoulder

- To motivate those Americans who are not fixed in partisan positions to step into their pivotal role as a pragmatic mediating force that calls on all parties to come together to engage in a joint search for solutions that meet the highest priorities of each

- To encourage a latent convergence between thoughtful progressives and thoughtful conservatives in opposition to the power-obsessed politics of this era and prepared to search for common ground in the ?no man?s land? between the warring parties

- To catalyze a broader shift in the national conversation from partisanship to problem-solving by priming the pump in talk radio and other media, in candidate appearances and issue forums through a broad-based, long-term public effort, since this shift will take many years to penetrate deeply and supplant the blame game. We hope by our efforts to trigger a much larger and more spontaneous shift

Organizational Structure and Support

The Mainstream Media Project and the Harvard Global Negotiation Project are launching this joint initiative, the Calling the Question Project in pilot form in the spring of 2004 with the cooperation of The project will be officially launched in the summer of 2004 with an anticipated core staff of three full-time positions and extensive administrative and technical support from both organizations. Principal staff will be located at the offices of the Mainstream Media Project in Arcata, California with additional staff and colleagues in New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere.

How will the initiative work?

Calling the Question project staff will enlist participation in the initiative by large membership groups from among progressive, nonpartisan and moderately conservative organizations nationwide with an interest in creating a new space for public problem-solving in the midst of a dangerously polarized election-year environment. Initial participants include (the nonpartisan arm of the Internet-based organization) and community and professional mediators enlisted through the Association for Conflict Resolution,, and other networks. One of the early tasks of project staff will be to broaden this base of participation to include a wider spectrum of political perspectives in order to assure balance and encourage cross-fertilization between thoughtful progressives and thoughtful conservatives.

A small-scale pilot project is currently underway, with callers drawn from being enlisted and trained to call in to talk radio in a few selected cities. The purpose of this experiment is to provide information about how best to go about organizing this unprecedented effort on a broader scale. Initiative organizers are building multiple feedback loops into the process to enable us to quickly learn from participants what works and what doesn?t. The goal of establishing rapid and accurate feedback mechanisms is to create a ?learning organization? as a model for the kind of learning society we seek to promote in the larger world through the public problem-solving process we advocate. Central to this objective is the understanding that we alone don?t have all the answers. We will only discover them in the course of inventing solutions that reflect widely shared values and stand the test of practicality (?What works??) rather than in following the rigid commandments of a preordained ideology.

Before the initiative is publicly launched in the summer or fall of 2004, a wide range of organizations and individuals spanning the progressive, center, and moderate conservative portions of the political spectrum will be enlisted to either participate in or endorse the project. Careful consideration will be given to framing the initiative as a nonpartisan effort focused on problem-solving rather than on gaining political advantage for one side or another. At the same time, we will encourage those with strong political views to participate, with the understanding that adherence to one?s own values, principles and perspectives in no sense inhibits one?s ability to participate in an effective problem-solving process. Nor need we agree on everything to be able to co-create solutions to particular problems; we do it all the time in our personal and professional lives, sometimes without even realizing it. To exert a real influence on the national conversation, this initiative needs to engage people and organizations that adhere to differing views with conviction and commitment. What?s critical is that this firmness be balanced by a flexibility that is willing to hear and accommodate differing perspectives.

Call-in participants will be matched by computer and organized into teams of three or four to provide mutual support and coaching and to monitor and follow up on one another in calling radio programs. We will offer training to trainers by conference call in how to ask ?third side,? breakthrough questions. They in turn will train others, thereby quickly disseminating the skills required for effective ?third side? work. Initiative participants will also be encouraged to raise the same questions with political candidates, office-holders and policymakers at all levels of government as a basic problem-solving tool. Over time, with feedback and design help from participants, initiative organizers will create training materials for those wishing to make use of these techniques in these other venues.

To Learn More or Get Involved

Contact Mark Sommer, Executive Director of The Mainstream Media Project at or Josh Weiss, Associate Director of the Harvard Global Negotiation Project at .

Also see the 6/24/04 announcement about Calling the Question?s job opening for a Director posted on NCDD?s Community Happenings blog.


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