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The Flying Pig Society: The art and science behind a Village Square program

Our panelists for Created Equal and Breathing Free on January 12, 2016

The Model

Almost a decade into our work at the Village Square, we’ve made a decision to become more intentional about sharing the theoretical and academic foundations behind our work product. We’re doing that because we think that our strategy isn’t always the most natural direction for those pursuing a more civil political environment, but we’re confident it’s the right one. It’s almost reflex to think that if only people had better information we’d be able to rationally navigate our way to statesmanship. That assumption then leads to the presumption that more facts, more analysis, and more technocratic wonky process needs to be applied to politics ASAP (a plodding policy-filled evening that draws an audience of about five, in our experience). Instead, we see the problem as fundamentally a relationship problem – we no longer have vital relationships with enough people who see the world differently than we do. Research supports the notion that people make decisions intuitively rather than rationally – people who share some bond are more likely to be able to find political common ground because they’ll intuitively “lean” toward each other. These (sometimes uneasy) relationships between people who disagree are foundational to functioning democracy. Bonus: it’s more fun to build relationships than write white papers (so we draw packed houses).

The development of our model has been strongly influenced by the groundbreaking work of NYU’s Dr. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Here’s Jon on what we’re describing: “If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”

The Program: Created Equal and Breathing Free

Our most recent dinner program is an example of this thinking played out programmatically. Much recent political struggle surrounds the straining founding ideals of freedom and equality – both societal goals that can conflict with each other (Hobby Lobby case, Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, etc). Rather than getting a panel of lawyers together to debate legal precedent and settle on a policy prescription, we set about to create a more empathetic view among liberals of the rising conservative concern that religious freedom is being threatened, and a parallel deeper understanding among conservatives of the foundational struggles of minority groups striving for full equality.

This thinking led us to invite two very unique human beings to our Created Equal and Breathing Free program – an openly gay performance artist who had established a well-known alternative theatre company and a young conservative Catholic priest who stylistically defies the usual stereotypes one might have of a Catholic priest. Each has a great sense of humor (a quality that helps substantially as we invite our audience to “lean” toward the “other”) and a truly accessible, warm humanity about them – yet they are in complete disagreement about issues that are closest to their hearts.

Find a lengthier discussion of the specific strategies and interventions we used during this program here.

The Results

We are fortunate enough to have the support of Dr. Haidt and his colleague Dr. Ravi Iyer in assessing the results of our programming. Ravi assesses attitude change that occurred pre and post event here.

The primary attitude shift that appears to have occurred as a result of our programming is an increase in positive attitudes about conservatives among a more liberal-leaning audience. There was a smaller positive shift of conservatives toward liberals but there were fewer conservative responses, thus the result wasn’t statistically significant.

We didn’t appear to have moved the needle on our two issues, equality and freedom. We predicted that after the program (but before we saw the results) based on the fact that we just didn’t go deep enough into our topics to expect a shift (we were enjoying the human connections enough that we got a little waylaid).

Processing the Results

We think it’s possible we might consistently expect more favorable shifts in liberals’ view of conservatives based on Moral Foundations Theory. Where liberals show a consistent two-channel morality with a laser-like concern for care and fairness, conservatives show a much broader-based morality that encompasses care and fairness but also includes liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. If you are conservative you likely understand liberals when they focus on care and fairness. But if you are liberal if you see conservatives violate care and fairness in favor of liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity (things you don’t perceive as being moral goods), you likely develop a negative view of their moral compass. So it is at least possible that liberals begin interactions like this with a more dim view of conservative “goodness” and that if we can offer conflicting evidence, this may be one of the easiest high impact changes we can make.

A final observation is that anytime you are looking to complex human beings to achieve a sociological result in the course of 90 minutes, it’s more an art than a science. Sometimes our hopes for a panel are fulfilled and other times it doesn’t quite gel as we’d like it to. We can absolutely foresee the possibility that despite our best efforts a given program could negatively impact the view of the “other.” People (panelists, moderator, audience, executive director) can be unpredictable and we’ve been surprised a time or two. It’s worth noting that we accurately predicted the attitude shifts we’d likely see from this program with the team at CivilPolitics – after the program and before the results were calculated. We think it’s pretty easy to do once you see the event play out (human beings are, after all, intuitive). While certainly we believe we’ve still got lots to learn about how to apply the academic theory, we believe any failure to deliver results from a given program would be more likely due to the imperfect human-delivery-system we must employ, not a weakness in the moral foundations theory we follow. We have a lot of confidence we’re heading the right direction on the “compass”, but admit we’re probably still in kindergarten on the learning curve in how to apply it.

Beyond chalking those instances up to “you win some, you lose some” we at the Village Square have come to believe strongly that there is a real shift that occurs through our continued efforts to create relationship – there’s even academic work that supports our thinking in the contact hypothesis and the extended contact effect. We host about 20 events a year that are quite broad in their focus in order to build a strong ecosystem of relationships inside our community, the “between” where our results have the potential to grow exponentially. Many programs are intentionally focused on community issues that have nothing to do with political partisanship to grow “bonding social capital.” This focus leverages the relationships that form when people are on the same “team” at least some of the time, which creates a common bond that allows them to be on a different team when the circumstance requires it. (These are called cross-cutting relationships – a strategy well-traveled by European monarchs who intermarried their children to keep their countries from going to war).

Our Theory of Change

Democratic societies function properly for the common good if strong geographic communities exist within that society – where a robust social fabric bonds diverse citizens, where crosscutting relationships thrive and result in high levels of civic trust, and where human beings routinely stay highly engaged over the inevitable disagreements that arise. It is by nurturing these relationships – exercising a civic “muscle” despite disagreement – that people develop empathy for others, then strive to reciprocate kindnesses, leading to the best behavior of man toward our fellow man. It is ultimately only through these relationships that opinions shift, consensus is reached, good decisions are made, and problems are solved.

Useful Links

CivilPolitics pre and post event analysis.

Created Equal and Breathing Free event page.

Photos from event.

Strategies used in this program.

Inspiration for non-violent discourse

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As a member of the Village Square leadership team in Utah, I wanted to post a brief thought on this Martin Luther King holiday.

In December I came across a fascinating editorial about A.J. Muste by David Blankenhorn entitled “The life of A.J. Muste and trying to be a better Christian.” It’s worth reading how this white immigrant became an inspiration for Dr. Martin Luther King and how Muste’s life can inspire us to compassionately seek to understand and engage with those who disagree with us.

Here’s just a taste from this article:

Part of Muste’s genius is that he never succumbed to the belief that he spoke [complete] truth and that his opponents spoke [complete] error. He said: “You always assume there is some element of truth in the position of the other person, and you respect your opponent for hanging on to an idea as long as he believes it to be true. On the other hand, you must try very hard to see what truth actually does exist in his idea, and seize on it to make him realize what you consider to be a larger truth.”

Jay Griffith
Village Square Salt Lake City, Team Member

On darkness and light on this day

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Photo credit.)

Police-Community Relations in Salt Lake City: A Dialogue Report-out

On Monday, January 11th, nearly 50 people gathered at the University of Utah’s Neighborhood Partners-Hartland Center on the west side of Salt Lake City to explore police/community relations in the community.

IMG_20160111_190433642Alongside 6 members of the Salt Lake City police force, there were 41 community members – 88% of whom were non-white.  At least 10 nationalities were represented in the room – including participants from Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Guatemala, Columbia, Burma, Somalia, South Sudan, and the Republic of Congo.  The group also included three leaders of Village Square, Utah – Ross Collier, Casherie Bright and myself, Jacob Hess – alongside our wonderful community partner from Utah Humanities, Jodi Graham.

Salt Lake City Chief of Police Mike Brown attended, with a deputy officer and a number of other people on the squad, including a victim’s advocate. Dr. David Parker, head of a community advisory group for the department also participated – with Dr. David Derezotes, head of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Utah, acting as moderator.  Dr. Dave invited Village Square Utah to partner with them in this event – and help spread the word about it to the local community.

During the first part as people were arriving, participants mingled over brownies, cookies and chips (for the wicked among us) and fruit (for the righteous).  After everyone was seated, Dr. David invited everyone to introduce themselves briefly, with the police guests asked to tell us “what they would first buy after winning the lottery.”  David then began by asking the police representatives to comment on some questions of particular interest in the audience (which included social work students at the U) – domestic violence and child abuse laws.  IMG_20160111_190648271

In an audience that also included many refugees and immigrants, one of the predominant themes across the conversation was a fear of the community members at the consequences of interacting with police.  Two different fathers expressed concern, given significant cultural differences, that their children would call authorities simply because parents were not giving them everything they wanted (fearful of an over-reactive arrest).  Police representatives detailed what arrest was – and clarified that not anything led to an arrest.  Even so, the fear was still quite palpable.  One man said, “even if I have a problem, I’m not sure I want to go to police, because I’m worried they will misunderstand and I will get in trouble.”

Having moved recently from Pennsylvania, Dr. Parker acknowledged differences in Utah laws – and how it made him nervous not to understand them:  “I understand 99% of rules and still feel new. Thinking of many of you here, if I didn’t know the rules, I would be nervous.”  He asked the group, “How can people better learn the rules?”

This prompted some productive conversation and quite a bit of laughter as different participants shared scenarios from their families – and one African woman telling one of the police officers, “you are under arrest!”

Several people spoke of creating opportunities (like that evening’s conversation) to cultivate relationships where people were not intimidated – what one man described as “something besides just police and community.”  David Parker illustrated by describing the turkey bowl they do every Thanksgiving – bringing together community and police in one part of Salt Lake City.

The police chief, Mike Brown, acknowledged that even while police vehicles and technology had progressed in leaps and bounds over recent decades, they hadn’t seem the same growth in community relations:  “we haven’t done a good enough job investing in the community.  The [police-community] trust is flat with Caucasian – and has dropped with minority groups.”

Brown added, “there are two things police hate: change and the way things are.”  He went on to say that for a group that is required to respond almost immediately to very high conflict situations, it’s true they can get rigid.  He admitted that police sometimes can act like, “warriors in the community instead of guardians.”

He also spoke of a training in Washington D.C. that made it very clear how much we all operate out of biases: “I’ve got my biases – and we all do.  The important thing is being aware of them.”

Although the conversation stretched beyond the allotted 90 minutes, we only scratched the surface.  There were more questions than we had time to address.

One participant commented after the conversation that she was “bothered by no mention of local police tragedies” and talk that only mentioned other locations like Ferguson, “rather than acknowledging that harm has happened here and the steps the force is taking to prevent and reprimand abuse of power.”  She also hoped to see more discussion about a “legitimate community fear of police and how to systematically improve” as well as conversation about “how to help community feel safer and actual crime rates, community policing, etc.”

While appreciating the police chief’s humility, I was also curious about whether they got frustrated in today’s media environment where very often the police are unilaterally portrayed as “the bad guy.”  Although some of the changes to police tactics have been hailed for improved safety, I wanted to ask the squad whether they perceived some of the changes happening across the nation as making communities less safe (e.g., police fearful to engage – in a way that encourages crime).  [My gut tells me that both are happening – good changes that are improving safety, alongside other changes that might have an ironic effect…curious at others’ perceptions?]

Despite innate limitations, there were definite positives about even just the evening’s simple conversation.  David Parker concluded with a hope that “everyone leaves today with slightly different attitude about everyone in the room – including those who are always wearing a different color” (motioning over to the blue-clad law enforcement officers in the room).

The evening ended with Chief Burbank gave out his phone number to everyone in the room.

If you’d like to support involved in more of these conversations in the future, contact us or add your thoughts in the comments below. This is not just a one-time event – but something Dr. David(s) hope will be a continuing and unfolding process over the months ahead.  To find out more – contact David Derezotes at David.Derezotes@socwk.utah.edu or David Parker at d4avid@gmail.com

If you’d like to do something sooner than later, there’s no need to wait!  Here is some guidance on conversation you can do in your own neighborhood and home.

Richard Sheffield: Racial Preferences and productive debate

Take a look at this smart piece by Richard Sheffield in the Deseret News on how the Supreme Court can become a role model for the kind of discussions we ought to be having about our disagreements. Here’s a snip:

While anticipating the court’s decision, I wonder how we can better handle disagreement and tension between the two sides of tough issues. Also, the recent racial tumult at the University of Missouri has spread to the Ivy League and beyond, increasing the focus on competing racial issues and the related on-campus arguments.

What amount of ugly rhetoric should be allowed as free speech, even though offensive? Should race still be considered in admissions to increase diversity in campus debates? When do volleys shot between two sides become counterproductive?

Ironically, I think the Supreme Court justices themselves can serve as a model for fruitful interaction on highly charged issues — whether on campuses, in Congress or City Hall, or even at Christmas dinner.

Read the entire piece by Mr. Sheffield online at the Deseret News.

Something to Consider: America’s Dirtiest Secret: We Agree On a Lot of Stuff

The below guest post is from Something to Consider, a Bridge Alliance organization (The Village Square is a member).

I’ve got a book coming out next week called Wedged and Debilyn/David (BA leadership) suggested I do some promotion by doing some guest blogging with some of the other BA organizations. (I think Wedged would be a great read for the Village Square audience, too–read the promo website for a quick blurb about it.)

Americans have this very popular notion that we really don’t agree on anything politically.
Such a notion is so pervasive that to suggest otherwise seems like a bit of a fairy tale. Americans of each party look upon the other with ever-increasing antipathy – so much so that almost ⅓ of party voters see the other party as a threat to the nation.


Congress also shows real evidence of no longer agreeing on anything at all:


All this looks incredibly dire. The most tempting conclusion to draw, of course, is that Americans disagree on more than they ever have before. In each party, we’re very much encouraged to propagate such a belief.

But America has a dirty secret that party leaders and media outlets don’t want you to know: as a country, we have broad agreement among issues that seem intractable and completely split. Let’s look at a few of the most seemingly-polarized examples: abortion and guns.


When polled whether they are “pro life” or “pro choice,” Americans have been split nearly 50-50 for 20 years.


But it turns out these distinctions, while not totally meaningless, tell us very little about one’s political positions on abortion.


For example, when we ask Americans to state their political preferences about abortion restriction timelines, 85% are willing to choose either 20 or 24 weeks as a cut-off. Only 8% insisted that abortion should be always or never legal, regardless of timeline.

We also know from repeated polling that consistently, over 80% of Americans want abortion to be legal but with some restrictions. It’s about 10% each that never want any restrictions at all, and about 10% that never want to allow abortion at all. Between is a wide spectrum of varied and often conflicting views about timetables, exceptions, parental notifications, etc.

This spectrum and nuance allows for discussion and an attempt to seek understanding, where the labels of “pro life” and “pro choice”–which seem to have very little to do with one’s policy preferences at all–do not.

We see a similar seemingly wide gap between “gun control” advocates and “gun freedom” advocates when we ask broad questions about guns. In this case, about 50% of Americans consistently want stricter gun control laws, and about 50% either want them kept as they are or scaled back.


Such a question paints us as fiercely pitted against each other, but it is deceptive. Within the incredible complexity of what the many gun control laws entail, how many people are really going to be simply “for more” or “for less?”

It turns out that when you ask people about specific policy questions, not only do their views become more nuanced, but we can see a broad amount of agreement among Americans.


For the majority of these common gun control concepts, Americans have 80% or more agreement. On other questions like high-capacity clips, we have the potential for a productive discussion if we put aside our “pro gun control” or “pro gun freedom” labels.

Why the discord?
There are a lot of policy questions about which Americans have a lot of different ideas. In this way, disagreement is a great thing: it means many ideas come to the table to “duke it out” in the hearts and minds of the country.

But why do we think that some disagreement means we have little or nothing in common with people of the other party?

There are folks that have a strong interest in you believing you have nothing to agree on with the other party: namely, politicians.

The most consistent and reliable voters are those who are most consistently conservative or liberal. So politicians running for election actually have a political incentive in order to transform us from being more moderate to being more extreme, as we become more valuable to them.


They’ve gotten good at it.

These incentives are very powerful and can’t be fixed by pleas or demands for bipartisanship or civility. We have to undermine these forces at their root.
In the “illuminating” and “powerful” new book Wedged, Erik Fogg and Nathaniel Greene uncover these forces and provide concrete steps for Americans to identify when they are being manipulated into supporting partisan extremes, and how to help themselves and others fight back.

Honoring a Founding Mother of American’s Dialogue Renaissance

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” – Eugene Ionesco

Twenty seven years ago, after watching a televised debate evolve from “disrespectful to angry to chaotic,” Laura Chasin asked a brilliant question.  Posed to her family therapist colleagues at the Family Institute of Cambridge, Laura asked in essence:  “Could the same methods that help families have safe, constructive conversations in counseling sessions also help people talk with each other in situations where there are deep differences in identity, beliefs, and values?”


Drawing on the wisdom generated in years of therapy practice, Laura founded the Public Conversations Project in 1989 – a creative effort to foster “constructive conversation where there is conflict driven by differences in identity, beliefs, and values.”

It was only a few years later, in 1994, that two murders occurred outside of Boston area abortion clinics.  At the request of Massachusetts governor, Laura joined Susan Podziba to bring together pro-choice and pro-life leaders for confidential conversations.  Originally planned for a handful of meetings over a short time, these secret talks ended up lasting six years and 150 hours of meetings. Although these leaders remained “firmly committed to their stance on abortion,” the respect, understanding and friendships that formed led to each side taking action to “reduce the violence in the rhetoric used by their organizations and to protect against recurring violence.” A 2001 feature on the project in the Boston Globe called “Talking with the Enemy“received thousands of letters and emails from around the world expressing support and hope because of their efforts.

As Parisa Parsa described her, Laura moved “bravely into uncharted territories with a unique curiosity about every person she met” – evincing a “generosity of spirit and true grace” which “opened up space for the minds and hearts of others in any gathering.” Sandy Heierbacher, Director of the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation called “a pillar of the dialogue & deliberation field.”

Laura passed away unexpectedly last week, Tuesday November 17th.

As cited in PCP’s original announcement, Laura was graduate of Bryn Mawr College, with masters degrees in Government from Harvard and social work from Simmons College, Laura’s interests spanned political science, social work, psychodrama, family systems therapy, dialogue, and transpartisanship.  In later years, Laura completed extensive post-graduate training in marital and family therapy in conjunction with a private psychotherapy practice.

Over the years, Laura has led Public Conversations to become a national leader in facilitated dialogue on a wide range of divisive issues, including same-sex marriage, immigration, abortion, diversity, guns, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  PCP has worked on dozens of issues on four continents – and even extending its teaching into the virtual world. They have received awards by the New York State Mediators Association, the American Association of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama, the American Family Therapy Association, and the American Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution. Recently, Laura and her husband Dick were honored by the New York State Dispute Resolution Association.

In the field of dialogue and deliberation, Laura is widely known and deeply respected for a foundational guide to dialogue that she produced with Founding Associate Maggie Herzig, Fostering Dialogue Across Divides: A Nuts and Bolts Guide from The Public Conversations Project.

Laura previously served on the boards of the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Spelman College. She has also served on the boards of the Children’s Defense Fund, the Conflict Management Group, and the Institute for Faith and Politics, and on the steering committee of the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice. Deeply passionate about the transpartisan movement, Laura also worked closely with No Labels and other organizations that encourage collaboration across the aisle.

Since first encountering Public Conversations Project myself at a National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation event nearly ten years ago, I have been inspired and motived by their work. Seven years ago, Laura offered specific encouragement to me in my interest bringing together people across secular and spiritual divides. Public Conversations Project has been a friend and supporter of our work at Living Room Conversations as well.

And just two months ago, Phil Neisser and I were invited to participate in Public Conversations’ annual celebration of dialogue called “Nourish”.  Prior to the event, I received a note from Laura, “Now that I have both your emails, the prospect of seeing you both tomorrow has become delightfully real. I took advantage of my role to seat myself right in the middle of you for dinner so we can have had some conversation before we need to appear before the group.”

In addition to inspiring us, Laura loved us truly.  In a day when many individuals who make little to no contribution to the world are showcased in death, a peace-making giant such as Laura Chasin should be truly celebrated.  This woman, as Parisa summarized, “lived with a vision of transforming fractured relationships, communities, and politics through the intentional, careful work of communication.”


May our fractured, wounded, divided society take a deep breathe today, and take away a little hope from the astounding example of Laura Chasin.

Author – Jacob Hess, Living Room Conversations Partner, Director, Village Square Salt Lake City. 

Tallahassee Democrat: Seven projects picked for Knight Foundation grants

Seven projects will get a share of $174,400 in grants from the Knight Foundation Fund via the Community Foundation of North Florida. Selected from more than 40 applications, the winning projects were picked for how well they aligned with the target goals of the Knight Foundation, which endeavors to enhance communities through unique partnerships and efforts.

Here are the 2015 winners:

The Village Square – Group strives to foster civic engagement and conversation on local, state and national issues, despite political affiliations and perspectives.

Read the rest of the article at Tallahassee.com.

The Jewish Observer: On Syrian Refugees

Rabbi Jack Romberg writes about the decision we will make on whether to accept Syrian refugees:

I say it directly, without hesitation, with a slight bit of fear, which I am determined to overcome. Let the Syrian refugees come to America. Let them find the safety, the succor, that they cannot possibly receive in any other country. No, we cannot take them all, but we should at least follow the lead of Germany – which is ironic given the comparisons floating around between the plight of the Syrian refugees and the Jewish refugees of the late 1930’s.

I say this without condemnation of most of those who argue we should not let them in. I think I understand those feelings. They are expressed (by most I think) not out of hatred, but out of concern for the impact on our country. Rather than condemn the motives of those who think differently than I do, I would rather address their concerns directly, out of simple respect for my fellow Americans. And then I would hope that at least some might see a path to changing their minds.

Read the entire piece online at The Jewish Observer. Please do feel free to submit alternative perspectives, argued with respect and civility.

Florence Snyder: Less green bean casserole, more human understanding. For Paris.

3254822612_acd6e77782_zDeath happens to the best of us, and also to the worst.

We saw that again last week in Paris, and in Beirut, where hundreds of people going about the business of daily living had the bad fortune to cross paths with fanatics armed with weapons of war and hearts full of hate.

The Grim Reaper is not obliged to give a heads-up that your number’s up. There is always a chance that a marathon in Boston or a church in Charleston will be violated by twisted souls that nobody’s God would claim.

The Grim Reaper outsources only a fraction of his job to nut jobs claiming to be guided by homicidal Higher Authorities. The bulk of his business is done by Alzheimer’s and heart disease and cancer and 57 varieties of addiction.

The Grim Reaper does not respect boundaries. Surprise visits to offices and schools and family vacations are not off limits. He works his regular shift on birthdays, anniversaries, and the occasional bar mitzvah. He does not care that Americans are about to celebrate that most Leo Tolstoy of holidays, Thanksgiving, where “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This Thanksgiving, as always, happy families count their blessings and carve the turkey, while unhappy families sharpen the long knives and use them on one another. No matter what else might be happening in the world, unhappy families can rarely resist the annual opportunity to eat, drink, and resurrect ancient grievances.

In her brilliant new book Tribal, my colleague Diane Roberts reminds us that much of the human race is hard-wired to believe that God wants bloody vengeance for last week’s defeat on the football field. We should not be surprised that there are people on every continent seeking bloody vengeance for Civil Wars, and Balkan Wars, and wars dating back to the twelve tribes of Israel.

This Thanksgiving, let’s skip the competition for Smartest Guy in the Room and Prettiest Presentation of Green Bean Casserole and focus—really focus—on learning something we didn’t know about someone who shares our holiday table. That’s as close as we can come to cheating death.


Florence Snyder is a corporate and First Amendment lawyer. Contact her at lawyerflo@gmail.com

Photo credit: Gregory Bastien.

Senator Ben Sasse: “This is not a call for less fighting, this is a call for more meaningful fighting”

In case you missed this last week…

Quotable: From Paul Ryan’s Speaker of the House Acceptance Speech

“We will not always agree—not all of us, not all of the time. But we should not hide our disagreements. We should embrace them. We have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated. If you have ideas, let’s hear them. I believe a greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us…

“A lot is on our shoulders. So if you ever pray, pray for each other— Republicans for Democrats, Democrats for Republicans. And I don’t mean pray for a conversion. Pray for a deeper understanding, because—when you’re up here, you see it so clearly—wherever you come from, whatever you believe, we are all in the same boat.”

Context Florida: Our special guest Clay Jenkinson on “Restoring the American republic, beginning in Tallahassee”

Jenkinson-outside The Village Square in Tallahassee hosted humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson on October 15th for a live audience taping of the nationally syndicated show The Thomas Jefferson Hour. To learn more about our program and listen to an audio of the program CLICK HERE. To look at pictures of the program CLICK HERE. The below piece by Mr. Jenkinson ran in ” Context Florida and the print edition of the Tallahassee Democrat.

As the 21st century finds its rhythm, and the 2016 presidential contest begins to take up most of our public space, it seems clear to me that we have two political parties in the United States, but they are both thoroughly Hamiltonian.We have what might be called the “greater Hamiltonian Party” and the “lesser Hamiltonian party.” The obscene dominance of money, political action committees, lobbyists, fundraisers, and unrestrained attack ads has essentially disenfranchised the vast majority of American citizens.

In a world where there is no longer any real accountability, our political discourse has spiraled down into the gutter. A citizen from Jupiter, or any rational American, forced to watch nothing but Fox and MSNBC 24 hours per day, would soon despair of the American experiment.

What is to be done?

My view is that we need a Jeffersonian party or (better yet) a Jeffersonian movement in America. Jefferson believed that a republic could not survive without a high level of civility. In his first inaugural address, after a hotly contested election, Jefferson wrote two passages that every American should stop to consider.

First he said, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

In other words, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, there are more things about which you agree than disagree. Stop exaggerating your differences – to raise money from your most virulent supporters, to appease the most extreme elements in your caucus, to erect a pedestal of righteousness in your name.

Jefferson’s second passage is even more important. “Let us,” he wrote, “restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”

Think about what Jefferson is saying here. The ideal of a republic is social “harmony and affection.” We live in the freest country in history, on what Jefferson called a “wide and fruitful land” with “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” We have every reason to rejoice, almost no reason to lament.

Who would not agree that the rancorous partisanship and political paralysis of the past dozen years have made our public life (the res-publica, as the Romans put it) dreary, tedious, dispiriting, degrading, demoralizing, and exceedingly frustrating?

National renewal begins with a new commitment to civility. The style of our national debates should be serious, at times pointed, but always respectful and civil. The whole spirit of the Enlightenment can be summed up in a statement attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire:

“Madam, I disagree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.

We need to bring down the temperature of our national debates. We need to listen more carefully to each other. We need to try to understand not only what the opposition is saying, but the set of American principles that underlie what they say. We need to refine our debates so that they begin again to be evidence-based, rational, sensible, and helpful. Demagoguery is telling people what you think they want to hear even if you know what you are saying could never be instituted in law.

Demagoguery is playing on the fears, the darker energies, the prejudices, and the uncivil desires of the people. Demagoguery is deliberately saying things that you know actually degrade the possibility of true resolution of our problems. By those definitions, the United States in 2015 is awash in demagoguery.

Jefferson believed we would only be a republic if we had a well-educated and well-informed public – a nation of people who could see beyond narrow self-interest to the health and happiness of the entire commonwealth. Jefferson famously said that in our system the will of the majority ought always to prevail, but “that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

Here’s what we desperately need. More civil public discourse. A willingness to compromise. The ability to see the virtue of the opposition, and to realize that they feel passionately about what is good for America. A willingness to read – books, articles, websites, the classics, the Founding Fathers – and to inform ourselves before trotting out the usual talking points (from Rush or Rachel or Sean or Glenn).

We need more Village Square events. I’m so excited to be coming to Tallahassee in the persona of the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. I do the work that I do, portraying Jefferson (and other historical characters) across the country, and playing Jefferson 52 weeks per year on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, because I believe something vital is missing at the core of American life, and that Jefferson’s view of republican democracy is the answer to what has gone wrong in American life.

Not everything about Thomas Jefferson is admirable, but his understanding of how a republic works is as important today as it was when he first penned these thoughts two centuries ago.

If I can play a small role in restoring Jeffersonian values to our national discourse, I will say, to use one of Jefferson’s allusions, like the character in the Bible, nunc dimittis, now you may dismiss me, for my work is done.


Clay S. Jenkinson is a humanities scholar, Rhodes Scholar, author and social commentator. He has lectured about and portrayed Thomas Jefferson in 49 states over a period of 15 years, before U.S. Supreme Court justices, presidents, 18 state legislatures, and countless public, corporate, student and television audiences. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

The Village Square will host Jenkinson for a special live audience taping of the The Thomas Jefferson Hour at 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Goodwood Museum & Gardens. “Founding Ideals: A Conversation with President Thomas Jefferson” is a fundraiser for The Village Square. You may purchase tickets by clicking here. Questions? Email christine@tothevillagesquare.org or call 850-590-6646.