Changing the Tone

Of all the aspirations set out by the newly inaugurated Obama administration one year ago, the promise to reduce the level of acrimony in American political life is the one that has most plainly gone unfulfilled.

And that's not surprising -- it's always risky to make a promise that depends on someone else cooperating. To induce failure in Barack Obama's central promise, all conservatives needed to do was to stir up acrimony, which isn't very hard. While this is not a period like the late 1960s where the country seems hopelessly divided, the white-hot fury of the minority exceeds anything from the left during the Bush years. The right-wingers who claim to feel, as Rep. Michele Bachmann puts it, that we are "losing our country" seem to be, if anything, overrepresented among mainstream elected Republicans, including perhaps dozens of members of Congress.

Many on the left are happy to see Obama's promise broken, because they think it should never have been made in the first place. They say anyone who witnessed the Clinton impeachment farce, the 2000 election recount, or the winner-take-all politics of the Bush years should understand that the tone of American politics won't change. There are enemies who won't be appeased by an open door and a soft voice. For those critics, the White House's willingness to name Fox News as a partisan operation was a welcome, overdue recognition of reality. In this political atmosphere, they argue, lasting social progress will not be possible unless Democrats are willing to adopt the ruthless parliamentary tactics of the Bush years, and perhaps go beyond them.

Indeed, there is an aggrieved minority in this country -- maybe 15 percent to 18 percent of the population -- that will not go away. Their grievances are couched in terms of the health-care bill, government spending, or gun rights, but it all boils down to race. It's not just that the president is not white. It's that for the first time since President Rutherford B. Hayes ended Reconstruction, the white South does not control the country. In every political configuration we've known, whether under Democratic or Republican presidents, white, mostly Southern conservatives held the balance of power. They were the unyielding, aging committee chairs of the 1950s and 1960s, the heart of Nixon's "Southern Strategy." They were the essential electoral votes for Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and by the time of the Bush administration, they not only dominated the party but the House and the Senate.

Today, they have nothing. As the Republican Party contracted around its white Southern core, that core became powerless, irrelevant. And its constituents and representatives became furious. They really had "lost their country" -- that is, the structure of power as they had known it. Not all the tea partiers are Southern, of course -- Bachmann is from Minnesota -- but the white South has always had satellites throughout the country.

This displaced minority cannot be allowed to set the tone for American politics. While the promise of a more open, collaborative form of government may have been naive, it was a good goal. Many Obama voters, including the independents and disgruntled Republicans who made him the first Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson to win a solid electoral majority, were persuaded by that promise. Changing the process of American politics is not only a worthy goal but a necessary prerequisite to continued progress. The mission of progressives (not just Obama) is to find ways to prevent the angry minority tone from spreading, to hold the contagion. Most citizens want to be heard and have grievances of their own. The angry minority should not speak for them.

This change can't begin on Capitol Hill. (Inviting Republicans for coffee only works with Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.) It has to start on the ground. There are glimmers of hope in new structures for deliberative democracy, alternatives to the angry town meetings of the summer of 2009.

For example, the Congressional Management Foundation and several universities recently studied a series of online town-hall meetings on the flashpoint issue of immigration, involving members of Congress and their constituents. The research found that with participants recruited to represent the whole community, and light moderation, the discussion was civil and productive, and unlike the summer health-care town halls, participants came away enthusiastic, better informed, and more likely to vote.

Most such deliberative initiatives are still at the experimental stages, and they may well seem soft and civic, inadequate to the challenge posed by the unyielding partisans. But by building these processes up to scale, and giving people new ways to make their voice heard in government, we might be able to contain the venom and achieve Obama's promise by building structures for citizen participation that bypass the angriest faction.

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